In my first post on this subject I looked at what Paul said in his letter to the Galatians on the subject of the Law. This time I'd like to have a look at what Jesus says on the same subject in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7).
I recently read somewhere that this sermon could be described as "the best of Jesus". In other words, Jesus probably didn't say all these things at once, he said them seperately and the author of Matthew put them together. If this is the case, Matthew took a lot of care over it because the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. I know you're not supposed to have favourite sections of the Bible but I have to confess that this is the place I come back to most often, ever since I first read it in my teens and was blown away by the depth of its moral vision.
The Sermon on the Mount is a sustained critique of the torah as practiced in Jesus' day. He starts by affirming his respect for the law in the following way.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Mat 5:17,18)
This passage has caused all sorts of problems for Christians. Its most obvious interpretation is that the Law still applies to us now - the argument of the Judaisers of Paul's day. This argument is usually rejected by Christians, and has been since the beginning of the church's history.
A second possible interpretation is that "until everything is accomplished" refers to Jesus death and resurrection - hence, in his day the law still applied, but once his passion was complete it did not anymore. This is a favourite argument among the dispensationalists among others. There may be something in this, but it seems that there is still a lot to be accomplished - heaven and earth, after all, are still here.
Personally, I think the main explanation is found in what follows. Jesus goes on to say
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:20)
For Jesus' audience this would have been a shocking statement. The characteristic of the Pharisees was their commitment to keep the whole law. Every command of the torah was explained, interpreted and put into practice in every situation. How could you be more thorough in obeying the law than them? Some Christians like to interpret this as an example of the law revealing our need for grace - the only righteousness that could fulfil Jesus' criteria is his own, and we must appropriate this through faith to enter the kingdom of heaven. All well and good, but I think the rest of the sermon shows Jesus had something different in mind. The very next words are as follows.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. (Mat 5:21, 22)
This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. They looked at the concrete action of the law - if you committed muder you would be punished. Jesus wants us to look within, at our attitude to one another. Do we harbour anger and bitterness? Do we speak harshly towards each other? This, says Jesus, is equivalent to murder - note how he applies the phrase "subject to judgement" to both murder and anger.
What is Jesus saying? This can't possibly be a new law. You can't outlaw anger. Which of us is not angry? You can only outlaw specific acts, like murder or assault. Yet these stem from anger - without anger there is no murder. Jesus is going to the source. He's saying you have to deal not just with the external act, but the inner motive. To enter the kingdom of heaven you have to be transformed from the inside out.
To emphasise the point, he applies the same principle to a range of issues. Lust is equivalent to adultery. You should keep your word all the time, not just when you take a solemn and binding oath. True love involves loving your enemies, not just your friends. Pray from the heart, not just with your mouth.
None of these things break the law, but the law on its own will not get you to this point. The trouble with law is that it can only deal with externals, with observable, concrete acts. It is possible to obey every concrete command in the law, yet not be righteous. As Darcy says in Pride and Prejudice, "I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit."
This was the problem with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for these earnest, zealous Jews.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypicrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean. (Mat 23:25,26)
They were obsessed with the details of the law, with ritual purity, with being seen to do the right thing, but their hearts were rotten. They were full of pride, harsh and unforgiving, driving more people away from God than they drew to him. When you hear voices from outside the Christian faith criticisng Christians, this is most often what they are criticising - our self-righteousness, our capacity to kill joy in the name of righteousness, our "holier-than-thou" attitude, our desire to impose our favourite rules on those around us. Interestingly, they are almost never criticising Jesus and what he said or did.
Nothing is more human than to create rules, and then to punish people who fail to keep them. Rules make us feel secure. They provide us with an illusion of certainty. We feel that if the rules are clear and specific, we will be able to follow them and all will be well. Sure we will sometimes fail, but it will be clear where we failed and we will be able to repent and improve. A vague principle like "don't be angry" leaves us too uncertain about what we should do.
Jesus wants so much more from us. He wants our righteousness to be much deeper, much more transforming, much more complete than this. He wants us to change from the inside out. Then the law will not pass away, it will be surpassed, and we will truly demonstrate the nature of the kingdom of heaven.