February 17, 200
Read Matthew 5:13-37.
As I was studying this week, I read two difficult quotes. One author said, “This is perhaps the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel.” Yeah, I love to hear that when I’m getting ready to preach! Another author said that this passage is key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount, the
OK, so what’s the big deal here? What’s the great controversy? Well, this passage raises lots of basic questions. What is Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament? And, now that we have the New Testament, what do we do with the Old Testament? Is it just helpful background knowledge, or does it still count? Does it still have authority over us?
Here’s the real difficulty. Jesus seems to contradict himself.
First, Jesus expresses undying commitment to the Hebrew Bible (the law and the prophets). “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved” (5:17-18). When Jesus says “not even the smallest detail … will disappear,” the word he uses is for the little dots and marks that complete letters, like the dot on an “i” or the cross of a “t.” As far as Jesus is concerned, even the teeny tiny stuff will not go away. It’s hard to get more committed to the Bible than that.
But then, 60 seconds later, Jesus starts ripping into the law like a kid with a pair of scissors. In six successive points, Jesus says, “You have heard that our ancestors were told,” and he quotes something from the Hebrew Bible, always from the Torah (the “law” section). Then, Jesus says, “but I say” something different.
This is amazing stuff here! Once, Jesus reinterprets the law (“love your neighbor” 5:43-44). Three times, Jesus adds to the law (murder 5:21-26; adultery 27-30; and vows 5:33-37). Two of those were from the 10 Commandments. Jesus said the 10 Commandments weren’t good enough!
Here is the really amazing stuff. Two times, Jesus even changes the law.
Moses said husbands could divorce their wives if “she does not please him” or if he discovers “something wrong with her” (Deuteronomy 24:1). Jesus seems a bit more realistic. In any marriage, there will be times when a wife will not please her husband or when he’ll find something wrong with her. That was a big, big step forward for woman-kind. Some Jewish rabbis said that burning a meal was enough grounds for divorce.
Jesus says that faithfulness demands sticking with the marriage unless the other person commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32). Men can’t just toss out women like some old trash and put them in the streets to fend for themselves as “used goods.” That kind of makes sense, but still, the Bible was wrong? Jesus later says, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts” (Matt. 19:8). So Jesus can change what Moses said in the Bible? Really?
OK, what about this? Moses was trying to keep people from going overboard in seeking revenge, so he said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This concept was so important that it is in the Hebrew Bible three times (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Deut 19:21)! But Jesus wipes all three of those aside and says, “Don’t resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matt. 5:38-39).
What?! Are you serious? OK, forget about whether or not we should actually “turn the other cheek” for a minute. Did Jesus just say that the Bible is wrong? Did Jesus just say that a command from the Bible, which was repeated 3 times, was wrong? Yeah, pretty much. It was good in its time. It kept the violence to a minimum. But Jesus says we’re past that now. Maybe it wasn’t wrong for its time, but it’s wrong for our time. Now we’re moving on to a higher morality, or perhaps moving down to the deeper morality which was at the heart of that command in the first place.
So Jesus says:
1) He has not come to get rid of the Bible.
2) He has come to fulfill the Bible.
3) Even the smallest part of the Bible is here forever.
4) We can’t ignore even the little stuff.
Then he says:
1) You guys just aren’t getting what the Bible is really talking about. Your teachers are misinterpreting and misapplying the Bible.
2) The Bible (even the 10 Commandments) didn’t go far enough.
3) Sometimes the Bible is wrong, or at least wrong for today.
Is anybody else confused, here?
I had a really hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about here, and I had an even harder time understanding what this means for us. I wrestled and wrestled with this. Sometimes I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall. Sometimes I WANTED to hit my head against a wall. Finally, I remembered the Hebrew word torah. Then, the lights began to go on for me.
We usually misunderstand the word torah. Most of the time, torah is translated into Greek or into English as “law,” and sometimes torah definitely means law or specific laws. But torah has a much richer meaning.
To start with, torah is also the name of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and sometimes, torah is even used to refer to the whole Hebrew Bible. This in itself shows us that torah must mean something more than “law.”
Think about it. Jews of Jesus’ time calculated that the Hebrew Bible has a grand total of 613 “laws,” or specific commands from God. That sounds like a lot – 613! That would take a lot of memorization. But think about this. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) has a total of 27,570 verses. If you figure that each command takes one or two verses, then “laws” make up only 3-4% of the OT and only 10-20% of the Torah.
Most of the Bible, even most of the Torah, is story. How can a story be “law”? Imagine if that you go to a lawyer or a judge with a legal question: “Is it legal if I …” And she says, “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who …” Huh? Story can’t be “law,” but it can be “instruction” or “guidance.”
And that’s what torah is really all about. The torah is God’s guidance on how to live. Dennis Bratcher explains it like this: “The OT concept of torah is a lifestyle of nurtured and nurturing relationship with God and others... Torah is not primarily a book to obey or rules to follow; it is a path to walk, a way of life to lead.”
The point of the torah, and the Bible, in general is to teach us how to live God’s way, and really, the point is more than teaching. The point is to get us to actually do it.
The Biblical concept of torah is complicated. Torah is living and active. It is both stable and changing. Torah is law and story and application and song. Torah is old and new. Torah is written and unwritten. Sometimes torah is the written code of laws. Sometimes torah is the fresh voice from God to the people
In the first chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah says, “Listen to the torah of our God.” Then he goes on to tell the people that even though they are obeying the laws in a technical sense, they still aren’t obeying the torah. In fact, Isaiah’s preaching is an actual embodiment of God’s continuing torah or instruction on how to live. Isaiah says, “God doesn’t care about your sacrifices. Get your lives straight and help other people.” (See Isaiah 1.) Isaiah’s preaching is a new part of the torah of God.
Being committed to the torah is being committed to the ancient voice of God preserved for us from generations and being committed to the present voice of God who interrupts our lives and speaks a new word. Being faithful to the torah involves a commitment to the written words and a commitment to the Spirit of God who continually reinterprets those written words in our lives.
In our passage today, Jesus expresses a deep commitment to the written torah, but like Isaiah he is bringing out more torah, new torah, from God. Jesus is helping the people to get closer to God’s original intent with the torah. Jesus is saying, “Look, this is what God really wants for us.”
Jesus is saying that it’s not enough just to read and do old written words. We have to dig deep into the written torah and discover God’s living and active torah for our lives today. We have to get to the heart of the torah. What was God really saying? What kind of life does God really want from us? What is the heart of God’s plan for his people?
But even that is not enough. It’s not enough just to discover the heart of God’s torah. It’s not enough just to figure out how God wants us to live. We have to get the heart of God’s torah into our hearts. We have to get the life that God really wants for us to come alive in our hearts. The
This is what Jesus means, “Your righteousness has to be better than the Pharisees and teachers of the law” (Matt 5:20). He doesn’t mean we need to take their 613 laws and make 614 or 6,014. Our righteousness has to be qualitatively different, deeper, from the heart.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14). Salt does lots of different good things. It makes fires burn hotter; it makes meat last longer; it makes food taste better; but basically it makes the world better. Light is pretty much the same. It makes things grow; it gives life; it shows the way; it makes the world better. Jesus says, “You are salt and light for the world. You are God’s instruments of change in the world. You are God’s instruction or torah to show the world how to live. So be salty. Live a bright life.”
Jesus said, “Let your good deeds shine out for all to see.” The Greek word for “good” here is not just “good in quality.” It is that kind of good, but it is also beautiful, attractive, alluring. It’s like Mother Theresa said, “Let’s do something beautiful together.” Jesus is saying, “Live a life so beautiful that the world sees what I really want. Live the
So what does this mean for us and Jesus, for us and the Bible?
First of all, God’s torah is still alive today. God’s Spirit is still alive, still giving his instruction to his people.
Second, we have to honestly face that the Bible is a difficult book. It’s not consistent. The Bible reinterprets itself. In the Bible, we see the ongoing process of the people of God trying to get closer and closer to the heart of God.
Third, that doesn’t mean we abandon the Bible. It means we run to the Bible. We need to go deeper into the Bible. We need to join the ongoing adventure of swimming into the deep depths of the Bible. We need to plunge our souls deep into the heart of God’s torah, especially as revealed in Jesus. And there, deep in the heart of God’s dream for the world, we need to discover together how to live in our world. Like Isaiah in his time, and like Jesus in the New Testament time, God has a new word a new torah for us. God has something new to say to us about how to be his faithful people in this time, our time. Together with each other and with the Spirit and with the Bible, we need to discover that.
What we really need here is PMS. If we are really going to get the Bible, we all need more PMS. Let me explain.
This works backwards. First, we need to SUBMIT. Ezekiel says we need heart surgery. God is going to take out our old hearts and give us a new heart filled with his Spirit and his torah (36:25-27). If we are going to have heart surgery, we have to submit to the doctor. We have to lay our lives down on that table and say, “OK, do whatever you need to do in me.”
Second, we need to MEDITATE. If we are going to get to the heart of the Bible, we need to think deeply on it, and let it get deep into our hearts. We need to think about it all day and all night.
Lastly, I am discovering a big key to understanding the Bible is PRACTICE. We have to actually put it into practice. Understanding the Bible goes in cycles. We understand; we obey. We understand more; we obey more. Part of the understanding process is actually practicing living it out. If we don’t obey or practice what we already understand, we aren’t going to be able to understand much more.
PMS, or SMP: Submit, Meditate, Practice. May you all have PMS! Even the men.
When I was in college, some of my friends used to sing a fun little kids’ song: “If I had a little white box to put my Jesus in, I’d take him out and smooch, smooch, smooch, and share him with my friends. If I had a little black box, to put the Devil in, I’d take him out and SMASH HIS FACE, and put him back again.”
Sarah keeps telling me that the theology of that song is not so good. Maybe she’s right, but my point is that I think we spend a lot of time taking Jesus and the Bible out of our little white boxes and putting him back again. We like to tell Jesus how wonderful he is (smooch, smooch, smooch) and then put him back in the box where we can contain him. We like to read our little Bible passage for the day or the week, and then put it back in its little box where it can’t disrupt our lives.
I think the call of Jesus for us today is this. Get so serious about the Bible that you open the lid of your box. Let God speak to you in new ways. You might find that it’s like Pandora’s box. The Spirit just keeps coming out, and you can’t contain it.
God’s torah is alive and active. Let it out. God’s Spirit has a new word for your life. God’s Spirit has a new word for our church. Let’s go deeply together into the Bible and deep into the Spirit, and open the box.
If we do, the Spirit might escape us. Once we let him out, we might not be able to stop him. Things might get out of control.
Make it so, God! Make it so!
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 46.
 Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (
 “Old Testament Statistics - New American Bible,” compiled by Felix Just. http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/OT-Statistics-NAB.htm.
 Dennis Bratcher, “Torah as Holiness: Old Testament ‘Law’ as Response to Divine Grace,” A Paper Presented to the Thirtieth Annual Meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society, Dayton, Ohio, November 5, 1994. http://www.crivoice.org/torahholiness.html
 Dennis Bratcher, “Torah as Holiness.”
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, (