It is widely believed that Jesus overturned aspects of the Law. In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists a series of antitheses. These are statements that follow a particular formula: “You have heard it said… but I say to you”. In English, the word “but” usually detonates some sort of reversal. Dr. James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis) states that perhaps a better translation would be “and”. The formula should be “You have heard it said… and I say to you”. Jesus is not overturning the law, but expounding and expanding upon the law. Jesus makes this very clear in his introduction to the antitheses:
Mat 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Mat 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Mat 5:19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
A few things of note: Jesus states that he has not come to abolish the Law (the exact opposite of what people claim of the antitheses in the very next verses). Jesus states that heaven and earth will pass away before the law is changed. This seems clearly idiomatic to mean the laws will never pass away. Jesus blesses those who teach the law and curses those who lessen the laws. It would be unfathomable that Jesus then preaches to lessen the law in the very next verses. Jesus then gives what is probably the theme of the antithesis: people must exceed the righteousness of the law to enter the kingdom of heaven (v20).
Jesus, quite simply, was telling people how to be more righteous than the law prescribes. This is by Jesus’ own interpretation of his words. Bart Ehrman writes:
An “antithesis” is a contrary statement. In the six antitheses recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states a Jewish law, and then sets his interpretation of that law over against it. I should emphasize that Matthew does not portray Jesus as contradicting the law: for example, he does not say “You have heard it said, `You shall not commit murder,’ but I say to you that you should.” Instead, even here in the antitheses, Jesus urges his followers to adhere to the law, indeed, to do so even more rigorously than the religious leaders of Israel. The contrasts of the antitheses, then, are between the way the law is commonly interpreted and the way Jesus interprets it. In all of these antitheses he goes to the heart of the law in question, to its root intention as it were, and insists that his followers adhere to *that*, rather than to the letter of the law as strictly interpreted.
Mat 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
Mat 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
Do only do not murder, but do not even harbor ill feelings towards someone.
Mat 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
Mat 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Not only do not have an affair, but don’t even think about doing so.
Mat 5:31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
Mat 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
While you are permitted to divorce your wife, learn to forgive and forbear her faults.
Mat 5:33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
Mat 5:34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
Mat 5:35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Mat 5:36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Mat 5:37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
While you are permitted to swear on God’s name, make it unnecessary by just doing what you say you are going to do.
Mat 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
Mat 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
This antithesis has caused particular trouble with modern audiences due to the “harsh” reading of the original command. But the original command was tempering retribution. Ehrman writes:
A final example: the law says to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (5:38). This law serves to guarantee justice in the community, so that if a neighbor knocks out your tooth, you cannot lop off his head in exchange. That is to say, contrary to the way in which this law is commonly understood today, it was not originally meant to be vindictive, but merciful: the penalty should fit and not exceed the crime. Since, however, the root of this law is a principal of mercy, Jesus draws the radical conclusion: instead of inflicting a penalty on another, his followers should prefer to suffer wrong. Therefore, someone who is struck on one cheek should turn the other to be struck as well. As can be seen from these examples, far from absolving his followers of the responsibility to keep the law, Matthew’s Jesus intensifies the law, requiring his followers to keep not just its letter, but its very spirit. This intensification of the law, however, raises a number of questions…
While you can avenge up to parity, you should forgive and learn to live in peace.
Mat 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
Mat 5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
While you are permitted to hate your enemies, you should learn to love and care for them.
Jesus ends the antitheses with another summary of his sermon:
Mat 5:48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
So what is Jesus doing here? Is he prescribing impossible standards which no one can ever meet to prove some sort of point about grace? Unlikely, there is nothing in the context to suggest this is the case. Is Jesus serious? All humans should hope the standards are a little more lax then the face value reading. Is Jesus speaking hyperbolically? This could be the case and would fit a lot of how Jesus communicated to his listeners.
Ehrman possibly has the best understanding of the purpose of the antitheses. They were meant to highlight the underlying basis of the law and to avoid legalistic following of the law. Ehrman concludes:
At the same time, Matthew does not simply describe a detailed list of what Jesus’ followers must do and not do in order to enter into the Kingdom. On the contrary, his point seems to be that an overly scrupulous attention to the details of the law is not what really matters to God. Even scribes and Pharisees can adhere to laws once they are narrowly enough prescribed, for example, by not murdering and not committing and not eating forbidden foods. God wants more than this kind of strict obedience to the letter of the law.
To Jesus, the purpose of the law could be summed up by loving God and loving your neighbor. As Jesus states explicitly:
Mat 22:36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
Mat 22:37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Mat 22:38 This is the great and first commandment.
Mat 22:39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mat 22:40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus’ purpose was never to overturn the law. Jesus required strict adherence to not only the law but a stricter standard than the law prescribed. Those who sought to lessen the penalty or force of the law were rejected by Jesus. Jesus wanted all people to be perfect as God is in heaven.