Friday, September 8, 2017

The Twist in the Sermon on the Mount That You Probably Missed

I expect Jesus to tell me what to do when I am angry, when I feel as if my rights have been violated. I expect him to tell me how to treat the people who betrayed and hurt me. Instead, he tells me what to do when others feel that I have betrayed or hurt them.


Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount amazed its original hearers; it subverted their expectations on multiple levels. It’s the meek who win the world. Believers are supposed to be happy when persecuted. And then this: Jesus, this new teacher with authority, came not to abolish but to fulfill the Old Testament.

His six famous “antitheses” (“You have heard . . . but I say to you . . . “) help explain what he means by “fulfilling” the law. But I think you, like me, may have missed something else unexpected in his comments—specifically those about anger.

But I say to you

Jesus opens this portion of his famous sermon with a quotation from the Old Testament:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (Matt 5:21)

Many commentators assume that the Pharisees had “externalized” this sixth commandment, focusing on outward conformity to a relatively accessible moral standard (the great majority of people are not murderers). This is likely true, given Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees’ murderous hypocrisy later in Matthew 23. But earlier in Matthew 5, Jesus claimed that he came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That’s his point in his comments on anger (and the following five “antitheses”). He’s illustrating what that fulfillment looks like.

When Jesus says, “But I say unto you…” he is not dispensing new truth; what he says is at least implicit in the Old Testament itself. As Calvin insists, the law of God “spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes.” (284)

So this passage is an example of what it means for Jesus to “fulfill” the law. He both shows and iswhere the law points.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:22)

For any flesh-and-blood human being to quote a Bible verse to a bunch of Jewish listeners in the first century and then follow it up with, “But I say to you. . .” is remarkable, breathtaking. It would be like a lowly clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court standing out on the steps of the court building in Washington, D.C. to relay the justices’ decision to the reporters at a press conference. He reads the detailed, multi-page decision, and then adds, “That was a good opinion the justices gave, but I think. . .” That clerk has no authority to say what he thinks. No journalist holding an audio recorder cares what he thinks. Jesus’ six antitheses work in this passage only if he has the right not only to interpret but even to add to the law of God (as Jesus will do later in the passage with oaths). And who but God can do that?


No wonder Matthew follows up the Sermon on the Mount with a comment that the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching: he wasn’t like their scribes, always quibbling and quoting; “he was teaching them as one who had authority” (Matt 7:29). Jesus is implicitly claiming to be the New Authority on the scene.

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