Matthew 5:17-37


Jesus as Fulfilment of the Law


Matthew 5:17-20    The Law and the Prophets

17Do not think that I have come to annul the law or the prophets.  
I have come not to annul but to fulfill. 
18 Seriously I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear,
not one iota or one small letter of the law will disappear
until everything comes about. 

Matthew had spoken earlier about how incidents in the life of Jesus fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets [1:22; 2:5; 2:15,17,23; 4:14]. He now used the same word fulfil to refer to Jesus’ approach to law. The word law translated the Hebrew word “Torah”, which referred, not only to the Ten Commandments, but to the whole way of life consequent on the people’s covenant relationship with God.

Jesus’ fulfilling was to be seen in contrast to annulling. Jesus would bring a new mindset to the Torah. He was not the first to do this. The prophets had consistently interpreted and studied the Torah in depth, teasing out its consequences, purifying it and applying it to the ever-changing social conditions. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisee movement had elaborated a complex body of detailed traditions by which it aimed to relate the Torah to the particulars of everyday living.

In protesting Jesus’ faithfulness to the Torah, Matthew was responding to the criticisms of many of the Jews of his own day who accused Christians of abandoning the law.

It is significant, however, that Jesus did not see the details of the Torah as absolute and eternal. They would apply only until everything comes about.  In Matthew’s mind, that accomplishment would happen at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom [27:51]. The final key to the interpretation of Torah would be the new covenantal relationship between God and humankind brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection [26:28], and the profound and mysterious trust and intimacy to which it gave rise.

19 Whoever therefore annuls one of the least of these commands
and teaches that to others,
will be called least in the heavenly kingdom.  
Whoever on the other hand observes the law and teaches it
will be called great in the heavenly kingdom. 

The reference to teaching others to do the same was directed, not so much to the disciples (and the crowd?) listening to him, as to the community that would form after his death and resurrection. [See 28:20 with its reference to my commandments.] Almost certainly, the comment was Matthew’s own.

Nuancing Matthew’s Attitudes to the Law

For Matthew’s community, the fulfilling of the law had already happened. What, then, was his interest in repeating that “not one iota or one small letter of the law will disappear until everything comes about”, and his warning against breaking “one of the least of these commands”?

Matthew may well have been a scribe or a Pharisee before his conversion to the Christian movement. He seemed to have had a natural respect for law. However, overriding this respect for law was his insistence on the practical living of the consequences of the new covenantal relationship with God. He insisted relentlessly on the need to live authentically.

He was a natural teacher, and emphasised the importance of the role of teacher. Yet, for him, authentic behaviour was even more important than correct belief.

Though, perhaps, naturally inclined toward legalism, he emphasised deliberately the importance of the spirit of the law above the letter. As would become obvious later in his narrative, the spirit informing all interpretation of the law would be the spirit of mercy and the lifting of unnecessary burdens.

The degree of importance to be attributed to the precise wording of commandments would become obvious in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ response to the practicalities of Jewish law.

Proper interpretation of Matthew’s use of words and images needs to take account of: 

  • the Jewish love to exaggerate and to simplify, in order to give emphasis, 
  • as well as Matthew’s own burning desire that disciples move beyond correct thinking to correct doing.  

To read Matthew in a legalistic or fundamentalist way does the Gospel an injustice. To not take seriously his insistence on practical action would be similarly unwarranted.

20 For I assure you, that unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the heavenly kingdom.

With this brief comment, Matthew proceeded to introduce two different series of practical illustrations of Jesus’ attitudes to law. He would contrast the interpretations given by Jesus the teacher to the interpretations given, firstly, by the scribes and then by the Pharisees. At the time of Jesus, as well as at the time of Matthew’s Christian community, both scribes and Pharisees were respected and recognised by Jews generally to be authoritative teachers and interpreters of the law. 

Interpreting the Law - The Heart

While Matthew’s prime concern was to compare and contrast Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah with that of the scribes, the actual issues he selected for comment were significant in their own right and addressed a range of attitudes that crippled society generally, and led to much oppression. 

These issues were 

  • hostility,
  • possessiveness,
  • patriarchy,
  • dishonesty,
  • revenge,
  • and tribalism.

Jesus’ first two illustrations would deal with no less than actual commands of the Decalogue.

Kingdom Morality

In the moral teaching that would follow, Jesus illustrated the approach to life characteristic of disciples who had begun to convert and to open themselves to the Kingdom experience.

Jesus’ purpose was not to command. Nor was it to propose an idealised ethic for disciples. Both approaches would serve only to motivate and activate the ego, and constitute a kind of “try harder”, “be holier”, ethic. Approaching Jesus’ teaching from the standpoint of the ego and its idealised goals leads to inevitable failure, and to consequent denial, cover-up and hypocrisy.

Kingdom morality supposes surrendering to God in trust, and embarking on a journey of transformation empowered by the Spirit of God. The journey involves the discovery and liberation of the true self, made in the image of God. Insight and growth can be hesitant, and cooperation, sometimes, reluctant. Eventually, the journey leads to the growth of genuine love – the love that cannot be controlled by the ego, and cannot be imagined until lived. The destination is discovered to the extent that the transformation takes hold.

Jesus’ teaching would serve to indicate what is possible, as the ego dies and the true self emerges. 

Matthew 5:21-26     Anger, Insult and Judgment

(Lk 12:57—59)

21You have heard it said to people in the past,
'You must not murder', but 'whoever does murder is liable for judgment.’ 
22 I tell you, however, that
whoever shows anger to a brother will be liable for judgment.  
Whoever calls a brother empty headed will be liable to the Sanhedrin.  
Whoever calls a brother a fool will be liable to be cast into burning gehenna. 

Jesus’ clear authority, I tell you, stood in strong contrast to the claims of the Hebrew prophets, Thus says the Lord. Jesus spoke from his own truth, from his own fullness. The discourse would be concluded by Matthew’s comment that the crowds were astounded at his teaching for he taught as one having authority [7:29], the same authority that Matthew would attribute to the risen Jesus at the conclusion of his Gospel [28:18].

The context was the Israel of Jesus’ time and place. Judgment referred to the local village or town court; the Sanhedrin was the highest court of Israel, the burning Gehenna to the burning waste dump outside Jerusalem. None of them, obviously, was being referred to literally, though Matthew may have wished to show Jesus ridiculing a kind of teaching sometimes adopted by Pharisees. The infringements in question progressed from internal anger or angry words, to actual insult that questioned the honour of the other, to accusation and judgment on the faith of the other. (In the tradition, the word empty-headed/fool was often connected with loss of faith in God).

Jesus’ interpretation, in this case, fulfilled the law in the sense that it extended it beyond the letter to the inner attitudes from which murder ultimately derived. The obligation was seen to proceed, not from the written law or even some arbitrary legislator, but from an inner sense of the consequences of human dignity and of life in society, discerned by conscience and revealed by the creating God. The over-arching value was the importance of peace and reconciliation within community as the necessary context for genuine human growth.

The offences were understood to be discerned and judged by conscience rather than by external law. Likewise, the sanctions mentioned were similarly to be understood as intrinsic consequences affecting the quality of the personal relationship with the creating God, rather than as extrinsic sanctions imposed from without.

Floating Anger

In the context of the widespread oppression of the time, the general experience of suffering would have given rise to strong feelings of anger. However, the relative impotence of the poor and oppressed would have made the expression of such anger dangerous. Much of it would have been suppressed from consciousness, yet have continued to exist in various other guises, including:

  • passive resistance,
  • aggression towards the even less powerful (including women),
  • psychological and physical illnesses, 
  • and self-destruction, depression and internalised powerlessness (poverty of spirit).

The popular apocalyptic literature of the time (with its graphic scenes of God’s eventual violent destruction of the rich, the powerful and the godless) would have drawn much of its appeal from this floating anger of the helpless oppressed.

23 So, if you are bringing your gift to the altar
and then remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 
24 leave your gift there before the altar
and first go and be reconciled with your brother or sister,
and only then come and present your offering.

The framework was still the Israel of Jesus’ time. The only altar in Israel was situated in the temple in Jerusalem, which, by the time of Matthew’s writing, had been destroyed. Jesus was preaching to Galileans in Galilee. That a Galilean should leave his gift in Jerusalem, return to Galilee to be reconciled, and to go back to complete the offering in Jerusalem was totally out of the question.

The language and imagery were exaggerated to underline the importance of reconciliation and the need for personal discernment. In the absence of reconciliation, resentment would grow, and could lead, in turn, to vengeance, violence and the destruction of community cohesion.

It is interesting that Jesus insisted that the responsibility for reconciliation rested, in this case, with the one offended against, more than with the offender (though the text is not clear).

25 Be reconciled quickly with your opponent while he is on the way with you,
lest he hands you over to the judge,
and the judge to the guard and you get thrown into prison. 
26 I assure you, you will not get out of there until you repay the last small coin.

To balance the preceding example, Jesus looked at the responsibility of those who offended others, and warned them, whether they were guilty or innocent, of the importance of taking the initiative and moving towards reconciliation. The motivation, however, seemed to be self-interest, rather than social harmony as a value in its own right. The reminder of the externalised threat of punishment simply served to underline the importance of reconciliation as an intrinsic need in any community, and the responsibility of both offended and offender to re-establish communication. While the intention of the illustration was clear and non-negotiable, though not necessarily to be taken literally, its practical application to other contexts remained undefined. 

By adopting this somewhat extreme approach, Jesus was steering clear of literalism. He tried to set free his hearers’ imaginations, to move them out of their familiar culturally-sanctioned thought patterns, and to help them to listen to their own truest and deepest desires. By doing so, he hoped to encourage the development of personal judgment and personal conscience.

The Source of Moral Obligation

Jesus was not substituting one set of directives with another. He “fulfilled” the former approach to law. His concern was to enable people to experience the liberation that was part of the Kingdom experience. He did not intend that their behaviour be controlled by some externally imposed set of directives, originating from him or even from God. Rather, he endeavoured to sensitise people to their own capacity to discern how to behave. For them to discern at all, he needed to alert them to their own dignity (flowing from God’s love for them) and to the equal dignity of others. That was his purpose in proclaiming the advent of God’s Kingdom. Their behaviour would flow from that sense of dignity; it would be based on it; it would draw its moral conviction from it. God would guide them from within – through their capacity to reason, to reflect, and to recognise what resonated with their authentic inner selves.

The moral imperative directs persons from within, by medium of personal conscience. It does not derive from without, from an externally imposed and sanctioned code of commands.

Proper discernment of conscience always remains a personal responsibility. Yet, given people’s always imperfect insights, discernment needs often to be conducted within a community of others who are similarly motivated by a clear sense of human dignity. As well, personal conscience, of its very nature, always needs to take account of the common good, beyond limited personal interests.

Given the defective insights of both individuals and communities, clear directives would always serve a valuable purpose, not by replacing discernment, but by sensitising and stretching it. During the time that Israel evolved as a morally sensitive community, commandments regulated life in community in ways that allowed people opportunity and room to grow and to interact with minimum inconvenience or injustice – as children need strict directives in order to be socialised and to interrelate constructively and helpfully in family and community. 

Matthew 5:27-30     Adultery

Again, Jesus addressed one of the commandments of the Decalogue. Once more, he fulfilled the law, as he had done with the commandment forbidding murder, by extending its reach to the inner attitude from which the external action sprang.

27 “You have heard it said to people in the past, 'Do not commit adultery.’ 
28 However, I tell you that whoever looks at a woman covetously
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Adultery is more than a sin against sexuality. In any culture, adultery is primarily an offence against the spouses and families of the adulterers, and an affront to the unity of the community.

The wording of the passage presupposed a patriarchal society with its focus on masculine lust. The same Decalogue that forbade adultery forbade, moreover, coveting a neighbour’s wife. Presumably, such coveting was understood as the desire and, perhaps, the intention to possess the woman, as much for her usefulness as for her attractiveness. The actual command read:

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; 
you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbour [Exodus 20:17]

Presumably, Jesus was referring to the response of sexual interest in a woman’s attractiveness. Though the text does not make the distinction clear, he was not referring to the spontaneous reaction of interest, but to the considered, deliberate and nurtured desire to use her sexually to meet the man’s needs. From such nurtured response, the act of adultery may or may not spring, but the betrayal of the partner has already been committed in the man’s heart.

29 So if your right eye leads you to covet her,
take it out and throw it away from you.  
It is better for you to lose one of your faculties
than for the whole body to be thrown into gehenna. 
30 And if your right hand leads you to covet,
cut if off and throw it away.  
It is better for you to lose one of your faculties
than for the whole body to be thrown into gehenna.  

Matthew took the illustration from Mark’s Gospel, where it applied to the metaphorical exclusion from community life of offending members [Mark 9:34-47]. Later, it would re-appear in Matthew’s own narrative with the same function, in the general context of dealing with problem members in Matthew’s community [18:8-9]. However, in this instance, Matthew gave it a more direct application to individual persons experiencing problems in dealing with lust. The language was still to be understood metaphorically (including the reference to Gehenna), but the graphic language served to emphasise the seriousness with which Jesus regarded inner personal attitudes, discernible only to conscience.

Matthew 5:31-32     Divorce

(Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16:18)

31 “It has also been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a deed of divorce.’ 
32 I tell you however that whoever divorces his wife,
except in the case of an unlawful relationship,
exposes her to be subjected to adultery.  
Whoever marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.

Divorce was not referred to in the Decalogue, but figured in the broader law of Israel (which was still regarded as originating from God).

The context was the patriarchal world of Israel. In Israelite law, no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was not considered an issue of sexuality, but of property. Men owned their wives, and marriages involved financial agreements. Only men could divorce their spouses – women could not.

In the two preceding reflections on murder and adultery, Jesus had fulfilled the law by extending its reach. In this case he fulfilled the law by contradicting it. Divorce with remarriage was not permissible. It forced the divorced wife into another relationship in order to survive, and caused her to violate her marriage bond to her divorcing husband. In addition, it meant that the man who married her shared in violating her previous relationship to her former husband. (Though monogamy was the general practice in Israel by the time of Jesus, theoretically, a man could marry another unmarried woman with or without divorcing his first wife, and it would not be considered adultery. Polygamy was common during the time of the monarchy.) 

Divorce because of Unlawful Relationships

Did Jesus allow an exception to his otherwise general exclusion of divorce? Could a man divorce his wife on the grounds of some unlawful relationship?

Opinions differ. Scholars argue about what Jesus meant by unlawful relationship.

The Orthodox Churches assume that a marriage relationship can die because of lack of nourishment, often, no doubt, indicated by the infidelity of one or other of the spouses. They allow remarriage. Other Christian Churches, too, allow divorce and remarriage. Indeed, in certain strictly defined circumstances, even the Catholic Church allows divorce and remarriage, as St Paul had done [1 Cor 7:12-16], and as later Popes permitted (though the Catholic Church will not dissolve a sacramental marriage between two baptised persons.)

"Unlawful relationship" sometimes translated as “unchastity”, is a vague notion that was applied to a number of irregular sexual activities.

In the Diaspora communities outside Judea, the early Church encountered different cultural practices surrounding marriage. In certain cultures, persons closely related to each other by blood could still marry. These relationships were regarded as abhorrent to observant Jews and forbidden by Jewish law. 

Many scholars maintain that, if such persons became Christians, the Jewish Christians required them to break up (divorce), believing that their relationships were not true marriages at all.  (This may well have been what was referred to in the decree of the so-called Council of Jerusalem, recounted in Acts of Apostles, that required Gentile Christians “to abstain .. from things polluted by idols, and from fornication/unlawful relationship, and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” [15:20].) 

Matthew may have added the clarification to Jesus’ otherwise blanket condemnation of divorce for the sake of the sensibilities of his Jewish Christians.


Interpreting the Law - Corrections


Matthew 5:33-37     Oaths

33Again, you have heard it said to people in the past,
'You must never break your oath, but you must fulfill your oaths to the Lord.’ 
34 I tell you however, do not swear at all –
not by heaven since that is the throne of God,
35 nor by the earth since it is his footstool,
nor by Jerusalem because that is the city of the great king; 
36 and do not swear by your head since you cannot make one hair white or black.. 
37 Let what you say be yes or no;
what goes beyond that is from the Evil One.

This further illustration of Jesus’ fulfilment of the law was like the previous one. Jesus declared simply that some laws, formerly accepted unquestioningly, were not appropriate, and certainly not to be observed.

Strangely, scarcely anyone, including the Church, pays even lip service to Jesus’ directions about oaths. While Canon Law condemns false oaths, in certain situations it requires the taking of oaths. So much for insisting that laws be interpreted literally!

Jesus gave two reasons for not taking oaths.

His first reason was that oaths were based on a false premise. Those who made them endeavoured to call as witness what they had absolutely no control over. Not only did they not control God, or the things of God, (heaven, earth, Jerusalem or their own head), but to operate as though they did was an affront to God.

His second reason was that the taking of oaths gave an opening to the evil one. In effect, oaths presumed different kinds or levels of truth – truths that could be believed and “truths” that might not necessarily be relied on! In so doing, it undermined the possibility of trust, and compromised the honesty of individuals. Yet human interaction and healthy relations in community presupposed the consistent reliability of communications.

In order for communities to function effectively, Jesus called his disciples inwards to recognise the clear need for constant reliability and truthfulness, so that they might nurture and sustain personal growth.

Practical choice in the area would be a factor of personal conscience, given the complexity of human situations where clear insistence on the raw truth can, sometimes seriously, violate the requirements of love. Reliable conscience, in its turn, requires openness to the transforming grace of God. True honesty is always gift – a fruit of life in the Kingdom.