Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37

Teacher of the Law

In 1994, a previously unpublished document from the Dead Sea Scrolls saw the light of day. The Halakhic Scroll (4QMMT) discussed many points of the Law, including the purity of liquid streams, a rather esoteric subject, to say the least. However, this scroll forced many Christian scholars to reassess their view of Palestinian culture in the time of Jesus. Up to this point, that view was informed by Josephus, the Jewish historian to the Roman world in the first century AD. Josephus described Jewish life before the fall of Jerusalem in terms the Greco-Roman culture could understand. But, the minutia found in this Scroll and how that minutia divided the Essences from the Pharisees and the Sadducees forced many scholars to see different schools of thought in Palestine, not in the philosophic terms Josephus presented, but in terms of how the Torah was applied to everyday life. This shift to Torah application (Halakhic study) marked a new page in Gospel studies. The early Jesus movement (especially seen in Matthew’s gospel) marked their differences from Pharisee and Sadducee not only in a devotion to Jesus from Nazareth, but also in how the Law was applied to the community. Jesus was not only Lord and Savior, he was also the Teacher of the Law.

Popular Translation

Jesus told his followers:

17 Don’t think I came to do away with the Bible. I didn’t come to do away with God’s word but fulfill it. 18 Listen to me! Not one smallest letter or dot of God’s Law will go away until everything is done at the end of time. 19 Whoever follows the Law in a loose manner and teaches others to do the same thing will have a small reputation in God’s Kingdom. Whoever follows the Law in strict manner and teaches others to do the same thing will be have a great reputation in God’s Kingdom. 20 If you don’t exceed the morality of religious leaders, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 You heard our ancestors say, “Do not commit murder” and “Whoever commits murder will be declared ‘guilty.’” 22 I tell you that anyone who is angry with another person will be declared “guilty.” The council of religious leaders will condemn anyone who calls someone worthless. God will throw anyone who calls someone a godless fool into Hell. 23 If you are ready to offer a gift to God at his altar and suddenly remember someone is mad at you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go make peace with that person. Then, you can return to offer your gift to God. 25 Make friends quickly with your enemy when you and he is on the way to court, so he doesn’t turn you over to the judge. If he does, the judge will have you arrested and thrown into jail. 26 Listen to me. You will no leave jail until you repay every last penny.

27 You’re heard the commandment, “Do you cheat on your spouse.” 28 I tell you that anyone looking at a woman with an evil desire for her has already cheated in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you a problem, treat it like you cut it out and threw it away. It’s better to act like you lost a eye than your entire body be thrown into Hell. 30 If your right eye causes you a problem, treat it like you cut it off and threw it away. It’s better to act like you lost a hand than your entire body be thrown into Hell.

31 The Bible says, “Whoever wants to leave his wife, he should give her divorce papers.” 32 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife (except for some really evil acts) make her a cheat if she should remarry. He also makes the man who marries his ex-wife a cheater.

33 You heard our ancestors say, “Do not say ‘I swear to God’ and not mean it” and “Keep your promises to God.” 34 I tell you not to make any promises using God’s name at all. Do not say “I swear by heaven” because heaven is God’s throne. 35 Do not say, “I swear by the earth,” because that the place God rests his feet. Don’t say “I swear by Jerusalem,” because it is the city of great King David. 36 Don’t even say “I swear by my own head,” because you don’t have the power to turn a single hair on your head black or white. 37 Instead, just say “Yes” if you mean it, and “No” if you don’t. Adding anything to that is from the devil.

This study begins with the subject of Jesus as Law Teacher, then covers how Jesus interprets the Law with a few chosen commandments.

Literal Translation

17 Do not think I came to undo the Law and the Prophets. I came not to undo but fulfill. 18 For amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, one iota or one dot will not ever pass away from the Law until all (things) might come about. 19 Whoever undoes one of the least of these commands and should teaches men in such (a way), will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever does and should teach (in such a way), will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you that if you do not greatly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

5:17 “I came...to fulfill.” The word “fulfill” can have two meanings: 1) to obey the Law in a perfect manner or 2) to fill in the precepts missing in the Law or interpret the Law in a perfect manner. The first meaning implied example; Jesus would show everyone the right way to live out the Law. The second meaning implied completion; Jesus would fill in the Law and its meaning.

5:18 “...one iota or one dot...” An iota is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet; it replaces “yod,” the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. “One dot” can be translated at “one stroke” which a scribe might use to copy the Biblical manuscript. Jesus applied alphabet and scribal analogies to ethical living or legal interpretation. This clause is a comment on the meaning of “fulfill” in 5:17.

5:18 “...until all (things) might come about.” The term “all (things)” can have two meanings: 1) end times events or 2) the precepts of the Law. In the context of the narrative, fulfilling the Law is preferred.

5:19 “...these commands...” These could be the commands of the Law or the commands Jesus will give in Matthew 5.

“...called least...called great...” 5:19 brings back the tension found in “fulfilling the Law.” Does Jesus fulfill the Law by teaching (adding precepts or interpretation) or by example (“doing” the Law). For his followers, he meant both. Those who teach an practice the Law in a loose manner will be the least in the Kingdom; those who teach diligence and act as a shining example will be called great. Notice the culture undercurrent of shame and honor; also notice that even the loosest of teachers will be saved.

“...kingdom of heaven...” Like the Orthodox Jews of today, the Jewish Christians who read Matthew would honor the divine name even to the point of avoiding the word “God.” In this way, they could obey the commandment about sanctity about God’s name. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to the “Kingdom of God.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exclaimed he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. As the note above stated, such fulfillment could be seen as either an example or as a scribe/interpreter. In the context of 5:19, Jesus meant both. He was the primary example of a moral life AND he was the primary teacher of the Law. He expected the leadership of the Christian community to follow in his footsteps as examples and teachers of the Law.

The example-teacher who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets was part of the cultural landscape in the time of Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls identified a “Teacher of Righteousness,” one who would give the populace a true interpretation of the Law, as opposed to the “Wicked Priest” who directed illegitimate Temple worship. Much ink has been spilt over the identity of this figure, with much dispute among modern scholars over its identity. All we need to note is: 1) the notion of this figure who existed outside the ruling elite in Jerusalem (i.e., not a Sadducee) and 2) an alternate interpretation of the Law that had legitimacy (i.e, not from the Pharisees). It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see the early Jewish-Christian community assume Jesus stood in the cultural shadow of this “Teacher of Righteousness.”

As this Teacher figure, Jesus would be the touchstone for interpretation the Christian community would follow. Those who were faithful to his interpretation would be “great in the Kingdom,” while those who gave a loose interpretation would be “least in the Kingdom.” It is interesting to note that both the faithful and loose teacher were saved, while the Pharisees were implicitly not saved (“unless you have a righteousness greater than that of Pharisees...”) In other words, not only were the Jewish Christian to live by a higher moral standard than the Pharisees (i.e., example), he must have a better interpretation of the Law than the Pharisees (scribe/interpreter). Jesus implied that the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law was illegitimate.

So, how did Jesus interpret the Law? We can only answer that question in light of competing interpretations (as noted) and the context of interpretation at the time of Jesus. As noted in the introduction, past scholars read early Christianity through literary sources; these sources were culturally dependent. In other words, these sources were filtered through the philosophic world view of Greco-Roman culture. With the interest of Jewish scholars in the New Testament that has occurred in the past twenty years, there has been a reassessment of the world view Jesus lived in. Jesus’ world was affected by Greco-Roman culture, but was steeped in a real concern for the Torah and its purity. So, Jesus in Matthew’s gospel was concerned with following the Law, but a higher concern was interpreting the Law in its purest sense. As we study the following precepts from the Law, keep in mind that each one stands as God’s will, and, from a Jewish standpoint, really needs no other reason to be obeyed. The question of interpretation is: how can one obey each in a way that maintains the purity of that precept? This is how Jesus attempted to interpret the Law.

21 You heard it said by the ancients (of our people), “Do not murder” (and) “who might commit murder will be (subject) to the judgment of ‘guilty.’” 22 But I say to you anyone being angry with his brother will be subject to the judgment of “guilty.” Whoever calls his brother “Raca” will be (condemned) as guilty before the Council. Whoever calls (his brother) a fool will be (condemned) as guilty in the fire of Gehenna. 23 So, if you should offer your gift on the altar and your should remember there that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled with your brother and then, having returned, offer your gift. 25 Become friendly in a quick manner with your opponent while you are with him along the way (to court), so your opponent does not turn you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you should be thrown in jail. 26 Amen, I say to you, (you) indeed will not leave from there until you repay the last penny.

5:21 “...the ancients (of our people)...” This phrase refers to Moses and those of Exodus generations.

“Do not murder” is from Exodus 20:13.

“who might commit murder will be (subject) to the judgment of ‘guilty’” echoes Deuteronomy 17:8

“...(subject) to the judgment of ‘guilty.’” Unlike modern American juris prudence, Roman law assumed the guilt of the person brought before the court, but did allow for a defense and due process.

5:22 “Raca” has a root in Aramaic that means “empty.” An English equivalent might be “empty headed,” but the type of insult the word implies is unclear.

“Council” is the Sanhedrin, the de facto city council before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

“...fool...” This insult implies not only rash action, but impiety. In the Old Testament, the godless were called fools (Psalm 14:1 and 94:8, Deuteronomy 32:6, Jeremiah 5:21); there are some New Testament uses of the term, especially in Matthew (7:26, 23:17,19, 25:2,3,8).

“Gehenna” The name of a valley southwest of Jerusalem where human sacrifices had been offered. During the time of Jesus, the valley was used as a city dump; refuse was constantly burned. The notion of unthinkable sin and burning point for refuse fused together into a concept for hell, a place of punishment for the wicked.

5:23-25 Jesus used two analogies of reconciliation: worship and lawsuits. It is better to reconcile with an opponent than to worship God with a guilty conscience. It is better to reconciled with an opponent than to be sued by him and thrown into debtor’s prison. In either case, we must presume that the dispute Jesus implied had a public dimension; otherwise, the worship of the unreconciled and the civil case against a debtor would bring scandal.

5:26 This verse continued the civil suit analogy. The “penny” was literally a “codrantes” a Greek transliteration for a Roman coin of the lowest denomination.

One of the results of biblical studies into the Torah at the time of Jesus was the fluidity of what we call “Law.” We moderns read legality into the term, but it meant much more than that. “Torah” and “Law” could have legal implications, but it could also mean divine direction and divine revelation. These terms were an embodiment of what Christians called “the movement of the Spirit.”

With this caveat in mind, we can see how Jesus interpreted the commandment against murder. Jesus did not address prohibition against the taking of a life; that imperative was apparent in the commandment. No, Jesus was concerned how breaking the commandment affected one’s relationship with God. Remember, keeping the commandment of the “Law” not only meant legal compliance, it meant living out the divine will. According to this thinking, if I do what God wants me to do, I CAN experience God. Jesus used extreme language to make his point. Simple insults violated the spirit of the commandment. And, reconciling a relationship hurt by angry words even trumped worship of God (after all, how can someone enjoy God’s presence when they are either angry or feel guilty over angry words?). In this dual approach (against even small insults and for reconciliation), Jesus addressed how one could keep the commandment in its purest form.

27 You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you that anyone looking at a woman with (the intent) of desiring her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye scandalizes you, pluck it our and cast it from you; it is to your advantage that one of your (body) parts should be lost than your body should be cast into Gehenna. 30 If your right hand scandalizes you, cut it off and cast it from you; it is to your advantage that one of your (body) parts should be lost than your entire body go off into Gehenna.

5:27 “You shall not commit adultery” is from Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18. In the Law, adultery did not mean sexual relations outside of marriage. It had a much narrower meaning. Adultery was relations between a man (either married or unmarried) and either a married woman or a woman betrothed in marriage. The concern was not with the abused or broken relationship between the husband and the wife; that was a secondary matter. The primary concern was the honor of the husband or betrothed male.

5:28 The verb “scandalize” is directly from the Greek; it originally meant “to stumble over,” but soon gained a meaning of personal or social outrage. “Scandal” is one of those rare words that has not changed from New Testament Greek to the present day English.

5:28-30 The idea of blinding an eye or cutting off a hand for the sake of the moral life is unthinkable, but the use of extreme language made the point. Matthew used such regularly in his gospel. Of course, the language is symbolic. The person should remove the object that the eye and hand desire. This notion of moral quarantine was part of Jewish thought, along the same lines as physical quarantine to control disease.

Like the teaching on murder, Jesus saw the commandment against adultery in terms of a relationship with God. Self-honesty was the key to keeping the commandment. One cannot “lust in his heart” and expect to experience God. As the note above mentioned, bodily mutilation was unthinkable (besides breaking another precept of the Law), but drove home the point of denying the object of desire. One cannot experience God and lust, no matter how well the sinner hides his intentions.

31 It is said (in the Scriptures), “Whoever might release his wife (from marriage), let (him) give to her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I say to you that anyone releasing his wife except for the reason of sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery (if she remarries), and who, if (he) should marry (one) being released (from marriage), commits adultery.

5:31 “Whoever might release his wife (from marriage), let (him) give to her a certificate of divorce” is based upon Deuteronomy 24:1.

5:31 “...except for the reason of sexual immorality...” What does “sexual immorality” mean? We moderns think in terms of relations outside of marriage, but some scholars have proposed the phrase meant “illegal marriage” (incestuous relationships or those forbidden by the Mosaic Law). In this sense, fornication was almost taken out of the discussion.

5:32 Unfortunately, the focus of adultery was the woman. If the woman remarried, she was considered an adulteress (5:32a). If a man should marry a divorced woman, he was an adulterer (5:32b). It is true that the divorcing husband was the cause of his wife’s adultery, but she remained the “vessel” for that adultery. Jesus used the husband’s moral culpability for his wife’s status as a means to shame a man from taking such action.

The Halakhic Scroll addressed the purity of liquid streams. In other words, if a kosher liquid in a kosher jar was poured into an non-kosher container, does the pouring make the kosher liquid/container unclean? To put it another way, does impurity flow backwards? The hyper-kosher author the scroll answered “Yes.” In the pursuit of Torah purity, pollution trumped purity.

What did the purity of liquid streams have to do with the question of divorce? Consider the Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh.

World English Bible

(See Mark 10:2-9 for a greater context for the argument.) Since only a man could divorce his wife (women had few rights under Jewish Law, but could divorce under Roman Law), the male was the active agent. He left his father and mother; he took the woman, joined her to himself and made her one with him. It was marital relations that the man had with the woman that created a God proscribed unity. Using the purity of liquid streams as a loose analogy, the seminal fluid of the male was the stream and the woman was the vessel for that stream. If any other man had relations with the woman, his “stream” would violate the “vessel” of that union (i.e., the woman). This is why the status of the woman was central to the argument of Jesus and why the divorcing husband was the moral agent that caused his former wife’s “adultery.” As a corollary, any man who marries a divorced woman shares in her adultery that was caused by the divorce.

Father John P. Meier made a further point with Jesus’ statement concerning the violation of marriage via divorce (A Marginal Jew, Volume 4). Meier’s research led him to conclude that Jesus’ opposition to divorce was unique for first century Palestine. The sociological arguments that animated Rabbi Hillel vs. Rabbi Shammai were mentioned in the Misnah (a rabbinic document from the third century AD). While these arguments might have been valid in the time of Jesus (I think they were), we cannot assume absolute certainty (also see Mark 10:2-12 for further thoughts)

Another point Meier makes concerns the common nature of divorce. We might be tempted to assume that divorce was rare in the time of Jesus, a luxury of the rich. But, historical research concludes in a different vein; divorce was common enough to touch the lives of the average person.

Why did Jesus oppose divorce? The only reason that made any sense is the status of marriage in God’s creation. Genesis 2:24 inferred the married coupe were co-creators in the divine plan. The placement of this teaching early on in the Torah, and its universal application to society made marriage a divinely ordained institution. St. Paul would apply this insight to salvation when he saw marriage as a archtype for Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:1-32). In the early Church, marriage was symbolic of God’s creation and of God’s salvation. It was an image of the beginning of the world and the end of the world. Since it was entwined with the themes of the Living God’s activity in the cosmos, it was sacred. It is perfectly conceivable that Jesus recognized it’s divine origin and nature, and, so, denied its dissolution on principle.

5:33 Again you have heard that it was said by the ancients (of our people), “Do not swear falsely” but “keep your oaths to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, not by heaven because it is the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth because it is footstool for his feet, and not by Jerusalem because it is the city of the great King, 36 and not by your (own) head should you take an oath because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, yes” or “No, no.” (Anything) beyond these (words) is from Evil.

5:33 These two commands summarized Leviticus 19:12, Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11 and 23:22.

“...swear falsely...” can either mean perjury (lying) or breaking an oath (made rashly).

5:34-35a “...heaven...earth...” The notion that heaven is the throne of God and the earth is his footstool is an allusion to Isaiah 66:1.

5:35b “...Jerusalem...” The city of the great King (i.e., God) is an allusion to Psalm 48:2.

5:36 “...by your own head...one hair white or black...” Hair color change by aging is a matter of God’s activity, not man’s.

5:37 “...from Evil...” This phrase can mean “from evil origin” or “from the Evil One.” The first interpretation is personal (from one’s evil intention); the second interpretation blames the devil for loose oaths.

Jesus commented on two, interrelated commands on oaths: 1) do not take false oaths and 2) keep an oath to the Lord. The majority of the discussion in 5:34-36 focused on the false oath, basing and oath on something that has no value (so the oath could be taken lightly). By relating creation and Jerusalem to God, Jesus basically asserted there is no such thing as an “oath taken lightly.” Every oath is an oath made to God, so must be taken seriously. People are better off just answering “Yes” or “No” and meaning it than to make idle oaths.

What of serious oaths? Father Meier in his tome “A Marginal Jew, Volume Four” applied the injunction of Jesus to any oath made to God. He pointed out the almost weekly use of non-trivial oaths to God. According to Meiers, Jesus opposed such oaths, even those commanded in the Torah! Yet, St. Paul swore oaths to the Lord, even for his apostolic ministry (see Acts 18:18 and 21:17, for example). Why Jesus would oppose a common, but pious act remains a mystery. Personally, I cannot think of any theological reason to defend the “Yes, yes, no, no” injunction beyond the condemnation of false or trivial oaths.

Jesus’ commentary on Torah precepts continue in 5:38-48 (Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A). As we continue the study, let’s keep in mind the reason for the commentary in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus sought to teach the purest notion of the Law. Such purity was meant to lead the adherent into a fuller relationship with God. These interpretations were idealistic, so they were meant as goal to reach.

How do you try to live out God’s Laws? How has the effort brought you closer to God?