This part of the Sermon on the Mount deals with the place of Law in Jewish and Christian life and shows how Jesus can draw out of the Law all the potential it has within it.
Jesus has come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to complete them. He is not a law-breaker as some Pharisees would accuse him. He wants to draw out of the Law of Moses its full potential. The one who observes the Law and appreciates the value which it enshrines will be worthy member of the kingdom. If the disciples don’t observe the law more wholeheartedly than the externalism of Pharisees they won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.
Today’s gospel reading deals with four important areas of morality where Jesus’ interpretation offers new depths and insightful applications. He deals with each issue by quoting the law of Moses and then adding an authoritative parenthesis – “But now I say to you,” – which deepens and broadens the concerns of the law.
The first issue he treats is murder and killing. Not only is murder forbidden but also attitudes and passions like anger, calling names etc which could lead to murder. The violations of this law and the appropriate courts and punishments to deal with them are listed in ascending order of seriousness ending with hell as a punishment. Worship of God should be undertaken only after one has been reconciled with anyone who has something against them and also anyone they have something against. If we are not at rights with others and they with us, it is not possible to be at rights with God.
The commandment forbidding adultery is broadened to include actions and attitudes which cause one to treat women as sex objects. Jesus does not literally mean us to surgically remove our right hand or eye but emphasises the urgent need to carefully avoid anything that causes one to sin.
While marriage was held in very high esteem by the Jews, divorce was permitted (Deut 24,1). In the time of Jesus there were two rabbinic schools of thought on divorce: the Shammai school was quite restrictive in permitting divorce, while the Hillel school was the opposite. Jesus (in Mk 10,11-12) rules out divorce, but here, he reluctantly admits an exception, “unchastity,” which some say means a marriage within the forbidden degrees of kindred.
Deut 6,13, and 10,20 command swearing oaths by the name of God, but probably from long experience of the abuse of this privilege, it became more restricted in use. Here Jesus says that for the upright person there is no need for oaths to buttress the truth of anything they say. Their own uprightness and honesty should speak for itself. Their word is their bond.
Christians always should, but sometimes don’t, show respect for the Lord’s name. Sadly, today,it is often used as an expletive to emphasize a fact. The Jews never pronounced God’s name, out of reverence for it. We Christians have a lot to learn from them on this matter. Oaths that are false (perjury) are the ultimate insult to God who is truth itself.
Jesus exemplifies a merciful attitude which affirms our potential for goodness. He recognises the need for rules to give direction and discipline to our passions and energies so that we may, by the power of God’s love and grace, be masters of own destiny, rather than slaves of our own passions, desires or laws.
Father Geoff O’Grady