Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Surpassing Righteousness of the New Law: The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sin leads to sadness, holiness leads to happiness. That pretty much sums up this Sunday's readings.

More specifically, the lectionary selections focus on the Law of the Lord and its fulfillment in Jesus. Whereas our secular society views divine law in terms of restricting freedom, the readings actually, in a sense, reveal how freedom is found in fulfilling the law. In fact, in the Gospel we find how Jesus is bringing about a "better righteousness", making it possible for us to even transcend the standards of the Old Testament law.

Let's unpack this idea by looking at the readings. . .

THE FIRST READING: Sirach 15:15-20 
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.
The Book of Sirach

The First Reading is taken from the book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus), which is only found in the Catholic Bible. It was originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek around 132 B.C. Of course, this means it is also one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written.

I consider it one of the great tragedies of the Reformation that this book is largely unread and unappreciated by most non-Catholic Christians. In many ways, this book is the greatest anthology of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, a kind of mature reflection on older books such as Proverbs. Among other things, the book is full of all sorts of practical wisdom aphorisms. Some of my favorites include:
"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter:
he that has found one has found a treasure." (Sir 6:14)

Do not find fault before you investigate; first consider, and then reprove. 8 Do not answer before you have heard, nor interrupt a speaker in the midst of his words. 9 Do not argue about a matter which does not concern you, nor sit with sinners when they judge a case. (Sir 11:7-9) 
Speak, you who are older, for it is fitting that you should,
but with accurate knowledge, and do not interrupt the music. 4 Where there is entertainment, do not pour out talk; do not display your cleverness out of season. (Sir 32:3-4)
The Law of God and Life
The first reading, however, seems to draw upon a non-wisdom literature book: Deuteronomy. In fact, Sirach's appeal to texts from Israel's history is--apart from Wisdom of Solomon--rather unique among the sapiential books of the Old Testament. In particular, the book seems to highlight the teaching of Deuteronomy. There Moses, after delivering the final law of Deuteronomy to Israel, urges the people to remain faithful to the covenant code, saying, 
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live. . . (Deut 30:19)
In short, to choose obedience is to choose life. Sirach is thus making the point that following God's commandments will lead one to life; disobedience, however, will result in death. 

God's Law and Wisdom

Specifically, the reading links the commandments of God to "wisdom". Indeed, this connection is made in many other books in the Old Testament. Given that our reading from Sirach seems to draw on Deuteronomy, it is probably worth noting the association made between the law and wisdom there:  
Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (Deut 4:5–6)

Keeping the statutes taught by the law of Moses is expressly linked here with wisdom and understanding. In short, to be "wise" is to follow the law of God.

Why? While a much longer answer could be given, we can simply observe here that God gives us laws that he knows we need. God has a purpose for us. He created us for a specific telos, an "end", or "goal". God's laws are designed to help us achieve our purpose. 

In this view, God's laws, therefore, are not arbitrary. God does not command certain kinds of behavior and prohibit others for no good reason. God knows what kinds of actions will lead to life and death; his commandments are thus an expression of his love for his people. 

Because of that Scripture therefore suggests we should not only heed the law, but rejoice in it.

This is the theme of the Responsorial Psalm to which we now turn. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
R/ (1b) Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.
R/ Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
R/ Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Be good to your servant, that I may live
and keep your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
R/ Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Instruct me, O LORD, in the way of your statutes,
that I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.
R/ Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Again, much could be said about this beautiful psalm. Let me make three points. 

1. Psalm 119: An epic poem. As Pope Benedict has put it, Psalm 119 is "a very special psalm". For one thing, it is the longest psalm in the Psalter (176 verses!). Of course, the lectionary only has us read excerpts of the psalm; I shudder to think of the number of times we'd have to sing a refrain if we sang the psalm in its entirety!

The psalm is also unique in that it is an acrostic psalm, meaning that it is structured according to the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza begins with successive letters of the Hebrew ABCs. 

2. A Psalm extolling the law of the Lord. As the refrain we sing emphasizes, the focus of the psalm is the law of the Lord. Following the law, the psalmist declares, will bring life. He thus asks the Lord to instruct him in his commandments. In language that seems evocative of the great Jewish prayer known as the Shema, he asks for discernment, "that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart". Indeed, numerous elements from the reading (e.g., God's commandments; God's law as his "word"; "walking" in the "way" of the Lord) remind the reader of Moses' words in Deuteronomy:
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; 5 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)
The psalmist's esteem for the commandments of God could not be any higher. Especially noteworthy is the way the psalm describes "the wonders of your law". 

3. Asking for assistance to keep the law. Yet the psalmist must ask the Lord, "Open my eyes". In fact, he also seems to recognize that to live by the words of the Lord will not be something possible to accomplish on his own. He thus asks God, "Be good to your servant, that I may live and keep your words". 

4. The Law and the Word. It bears emphasizing that the psalm speaks both about keeping the "law" and the "word" of the Lord. The two ideas seem to stand in parallel as synonyms. The lectionary reading has this in vv. 17-18: 
Be good to your servant, that I may live
and keep your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
See also Ps 119:16: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word”. 

5. A Marian interpretation of Psalm 119. Before moving on to the Second Reading, I might also mention that Pope Benedict has advanced a kind of Marian interpretation of the psalm: 

The Psalmist’s faithfulness stems from listening to the word, from pondering on it in his inmost self, meditating on it and cherishing it, just as did Mary, who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”, the words that had been addressed to her and the marvelous events in which God revealed himself, asking her for the assent of her faith (cf. Lk 2:19, 51). And if the first verses of our Psalm begin by proclaiming “blessed” those “who walk in the law of the Lord” (v. 1b), and “who keep his testimonies” (v. 2a). It is once again the Virgin Mary who brings to completion the perfect figure of the believer, described by the Psalmist. It is she, in fact, who is the true “blessed”, proclaimed such by Elizabeth because “she... believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). Moreover it was to her and to her faith that Jesus himself bore witness when he answered the woman who had cried: “Blessed is the womb that bore you”, with “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28). Of course, Mary is blessed because she carried the Saviour in her womb, but especially because she accepted God’s announcement and because she was an attentive and loving custodian of his Word. 
--Benedict XVI, General Audience (November 9, 2011).

SECOND READING: 1 Cor 2:6-10
Brothers and sisters:
We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
and which none of the rulers of this age knew;
for, if they had known it,
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But as it is written:
What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.
Above we noted how Psalm 119 links God's law with the concepts of wisdom and word. In 1 Corinthians 1:24, Paul reveals that Christ is "the wisdom of God". The Second Reading picks up in the second chapter of this letter, where Paul expands upon what this means.

Through Christ, believers have received the gift of a "wisdom" that is ultimately "mysterious" and "hidden". That wisdom is, ultimately, nothing short of the person of the Son, "the Lord of Glory".

Yet, Christ, the Wisdom of God, represents something that he rulers of this age could not comprehend. The wisdom of God is, Paul explains earlier, "folly" to the world. In faith we embrace a wisdom that far transcends the wisdom of this age.

In sending Christ, God has confirmed what the prophet Isaiah announced: that what God has prepared for those who love him "has not entered into the human heart". In Christ, we find a wisdom that transcends everything human beings could know.

The Gospel explains how the teaching of Christ even transcends the Law of the Old Testament.

GOSPEL READING: Matt 5:17-37
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna. 
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. 
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin,
tear it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. 
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
“It was also said,
Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.
But I say to you,
whoever divorces his wife - unless the marriage is unlawful -
causes her to commit adultery,
and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath,
but make good to the Lord all that you vow.
But I say to you, do not swear at all;
not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,' and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the evil one.”
Understanding the logic of this passage represents a famously difficult interpretive problem in scholarship. Here I will deal with the problem briefly, borrowing on a paper I have presented at the Society of Biblical Literature.

What follows represents a substantive treatment of the Gospel passage. I realize this might seem a bit more "heady" than what we normally do for the Sunday readings. However, the issues here are truly complex. I hope that my explanation will actually illuminate rather than obfuscate the meaning of the text.  

1. The Problem: How does Jesus fulfill the law? In Matthew 5:17–20 we find Jesus affirming the validity of the law and the prophets in the strongest possible terms: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. This solemn affirmation of the Torah’s value is then immediately followed by a series of sayings in which Jesus compares his teachings with the standards of the law. This section is conventionally referred to as the “six antitheses” (cf. Matt 5:21–48).[1] Here Jesus cites a passage from the Torah[2] and then offers a teaching which begins with “but I say to you” (5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44).

Controversy surrounds the exact implications of Jesus’ language. Does this language of “but I say to you” signal a rejection of the Torah? Given Jesus’ insistence on the enduring value of the law in 5:17–20 in the immediately preceding verses, it is probably not surprising that many are hesitant to make that case.[3] In fact, the Greek word used by Jesus for “but” (de not alla) suggests something other than outright rejection is in view.[4] Moreover, as many have noted, the hinge between the two sections seems to be Jesus’ call for a “better righteousness” in 5:20. Here scholars have recognized the rationale for the antitheses that follow in 5:21–48: Jesus is coming to bring about a new kind of righteousness.[5] Yet, what this “better righteousness” exactly entails is debated.

A number of scholars struggle with what seems like the plain reading of the text, namely, that Jesus is contrasting his teaching with that of the law. Some have argued that rather than contrasting his teaching to the law itself, Jesus is simply intensifying its demands. Others, highlighting the presence of language used by the rabbis,[6] have argued that Jesus is simply contrasting his teaching―not with the Torah itself―but with simplistic literal interpretations advanced by other teachers of his day.[7] Yet the problem with such a view is that in each instance Jesus cites the law itself, and not simply other interpretations of it.[8]

Furthermore, while some of the antitheses can be explained in terms of intensification of the demands of the Torah (e.g., the association with adultery and lust in 5:27–30), others are harder to explain along those lines. In particular, Jesus’ equation of divorce and remarriage with adultery is especially hard to explain as merely intensification since he is here prohibiting something the law permits![9]

2. Jesus' "fulfillment" of the law and prophets. It appears then that Jesus is doing something more than simply intensifying the law’s requirements. In fact, Jesus’ words, “but I say to you”, underscore the focus on his own authority. It seems then that the antitheses are thus related to the important Christological assertion in 5:17: Jesus has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but so that they may be “fulfilled”.[10]

It seems then that the key interpretive clue is Jesus’ teaching that he has come to “fulfill” the law and prophets. Indeed, the fulfillment of the prophets is a recurring theme in Matthew.[11] In passages relating this motif, the term is used to describe the arrival of that which the prophets referred to, which, in most cases, is understood as Jesus himself.

An especially important parallel is found in Matthew 11:13–14. There Jesus states: 
“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
Without entering into an extended examination of this passage, we can make two important observations about it. First, in addition to the prophets, the law is understood as having prophetic value, for both the law and the prophets are said to have prophesied. Second, the law and the prophets are described as being in some sense provisional―John the Baptist’s arrival seems to mark the arrival of what they were anticipating.[12]
It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine that Jesus’ reference to fulfilling the law and the prophets in Matthew 5:17 should be taken in an entirely different sense. Therefore, we should likely conclude that in Matthew 5 Jesus is explaining that he brings fulfillment to the law and the prophets because he is the one to whom they pointed. In the antitheses, then, Jesus does not merely intensify the Torah’s demands but brings about what these precepts ultimately anticipated: a “better” holiness.
3. The Righteousness of the Messianic Age in the Old Testament 
That the eschatological age would involve a radically new kind of holiness and the total eradication of impurity is attested in numerous prophetic texts. See, for example, Jeremiah’s “new covenant” prophecy:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33–34).

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. . . 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. . . (Ezek 36:26–27, 29a).

Some sources even envision the Gentiles seeking righteousness and learning the law of God.[13] A number of texts link the eschatological age with purification and the cleansing of uncleanness.[14] Zechariah explains that all the pots in Jerusalem—not simply those used in the temple—will be sacred to the Lord (cf. Zech 14:21). Such hopes are also attested to in Second Temple sources,[15] and later Jewish works.[16]

Yet—and this is crucial—in many cases eschatological holiness seems to entail certain realities that conflict with certain norms laid out by the Torah. Such is the case with the scenario envisioned in Isaiah 19:19, where the eschatological age is linked with the offering of sacrifices on an altar in Egypt―something which clearly conflicts with the law’s regulations for a central sanctuary in Deuteronomy 12:13–14![17] Likewise, Isaiah indicates that the eunuchs and foreigners will worship with Israel at the temple (cf. Isa 56:3–8)―something which obviously stands in tension with the law’s exclusion of such people from the cultic assembly in (cf. Deut. 23:1–6).[18] In other words, in their final form, prophetic texts seem to imply that the righteousness of the eschatological age will transcend the regulations of the law. 

4. Jesus as the "End" of the law. In light of all this we can perhaps better understand Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. In 5:17 Jesus explains that the law pointed forward to him and to the eschatological age that he heralds.[19] The fulfillment he has brought in no way annuls the law and the prophets―on the contrary, it offers their definitive validation since what they pointed to has now arrived![20] Jesus’ teaching in 5:21–22, “you have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you,” and the teaching which follows must therefore be understood against this backdrop.[21]

However, for Jesus, the fulfillment of the law does not necessarily involve recognizing each and every one of the commandments as upholding the perfect standard of righteousness. As the prophets and later Jewish writers also held, Jesus clearly seems to indicate that he has ushered in an age that involves a transcending of the Torah. 

This is especially clear in Jesus’ teaching of divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5 and 19. Certain aspects of the law were in fact concessions to Israel’s “hardness of heart”. Some laws actually effectively sanctioned sinful behavior (e.g., divorce and remarriage are equated with adultery). 

The fulfillment that Jesus brings does not involve rejecting the value of these laws. Yet their value must be carefully understood—ultimately that they pointed beyond themselves. By accommodating themselves to Israel’s sinfulness, such concessionary precepts actually revealed the penultimate nature of the law. 

The fact that certain regulations were given because of Israel’s “hardness of heart” highlighted the law’s insufficiency and pointed beyond itself. Jesus’ fulfillment of the law thus involves his announcement of the age of eschatological holiness that restores in some sense what was “from the beginning”. He has come not to “relax” any of the commandments but to bring about a better holiness.

[1] Scholars widely recognize that this section forms a discreet literary unit in the Sermon. Each of these sayings contain the formula (or something very close to it) “you have heard that it was said . . . but I say” (Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη . . . ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) (Matt 5:21–22, 27–28, 5:31–32 [Ἐρρέθη δέ . . . ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν]; 33–34 [Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη . . . ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν], 38–39, 43–44).

[2] That the five books attributed to Moses, known as the Torah (cf. 4 Macc. 1:34; 2:5–6, 9; 9:2; Matt 12:5; Josephus, A.J. 17:15), was recognized as having authoritative status in the Second Temple period is evidenced by the following: (1) Sirach 24:43, which speaks of “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob”; (2) Josephus, who distinguishes the Pharisees from the Sadducees by, in part, noting that the Pharisees “have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses” (A.J. 13.297); the existence of the Samaritan Pentateuch (cf. e.g., the discussion in Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible [2d rev. ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001], 80–99); and the New Testament (e.g., Matt 15:2, 3, 6). The Prologue of Sirach mentions “the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers”. Likewise, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we read, “You must understand the book of Moses [and] the book[s of the pr]ophets and Davi[d…]” (4Q397 XIV-XXI 10; 4Q398 XIV-XVII; 4QMMT C IX-XVI). The Gospel of Luke has Jesus referring to “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44). For further discussion, see the excellent collection of essays in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody: Hendricksen, 2002), in particular, Julio C. Trebolle Barrera, “Origins of a Tripartite Old Testament Canon,” 128–145; Jack P. Lews, “Jamnia Revisited,” 146–162; Jack N. Lightstone, “The Rabbis’ Bible: The Canon of the Hebrew Bible in the Early Rabbinic Guild,” 163–184; Craig A. Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers,” 185–195.

[3] The language of “antitheses” (i.e., teachings “antithetical” to the Law) is thus not exactly accurate and survives only as a vestige of a previous era of scholarship.

[4] One would expect the use of the Greek ἀλλά, which indicates a sharper contrast, if Jesus had intended to nullify the Law. See the discussion in Davies and Allison, Matthew, 1:507; Keener, Matthew, 181; Anthony J. Saldarini, “Matthew,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (eds. J. D. G. Dunn and J. W. Rogerson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 1015–16.

[5] See, e.g., John P. Meier, Law and History in Matthew’s Gospel (AnBib 71; Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1976), 41–42.

[6] See David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Interpretation: Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion (London: The Athlone Press, 1956), 55–62, who argues that the expression “you have heard that it was said” seems to parallel the language used by the rabbis to contrast teachings of different rabbis.

[7] See, e.g., Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, InterVarsity Press, 1992), 112: “Jesus is protesting against a strictly literal interpretation of the commands, an interpretation that indicates an apparent willingness to obey what God has said, but which imposes a strict limit on obedience and leaves scope for a good deal of ungodly behavior.” Similarly, see Gerhard Barth, “Das Gesetzesverständnis des Evangelisten Matthäus,” in Überlieferung und Auslegung im Matthäus-Evangelium (WMANT 1; eds. G. Bornkamm, G. Barth, and H.J. Held; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1960), 87: “Offenbar sollen sich die Antithesen doch nicht primär gegen das A.T. selbst, sondern gegen dessen Auslegung im Rabbinat richten.”

[8] See, e.g., Davies and Allison, Matthew, 506; Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKKNT I-IV; 4 vols.; Zürich: Benziger, 1985), 1:328–331; Adolf Schlatter, Der Evangelist Matthäus (3d. ed.; Stuttgart: Cawler, 1948); Turner, Matthew, 166–67.

[9] See W. D. Davies, Christian Origins and Judaism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 39: “There are items in the Antitheses where the old Law’s demands are radically deepened . . . [T]here are others where the Law itself is cited and particular provisions abrogated (Matt 5:31, 38).” See, also, e.g., Davies and Allison, Matthew, 508; Guelich, “The Antitheses of Matthew v. 21–48,” 447; Klyne Snodgrass, “Matthew and the Law,” in Treasures Old and New: Recent Contributions to Matthean Studies (SBLSP 1; ed. D. Bauer and M. A. Powell; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996), 121; Guelich, “The Antitheses of Matthew v. 21–48: Traditional and/or Redactional?,” 445; Harrington, Matthew, 91

[10] This saying is one of six recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus explains why “I came” (ἦλθον), all of which have important Christological implications (cf. Matt 5:17; 9:13; 10:34; 11:19; 18:11; 20:28).

[11] See Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9. In addition, see 7:12 and 22:40 where the Law and Prophets are likewise linked together. In fact, the other Synoptic Gospels also report that Jesus taught that he was bringing fulfillment to the Scriptures (cf. Mark 14:49; Luke 4:21; 21:22; 22:37; 24:44). It should also be pointed out that the Synoptic Gospels frequently have Jesus linking the “law” and the “prophets” (cf. Matt 7:12; 11:13//Luke 16:16; 22:40; 24:44 [“the law of Moses and the prophets”]; cf. Luke 16:29, 31 [“Moses and the prophets”] and Luke 22:27 [“Moses and all the prophets”]). See also William Carter, “Jesus’ ‘I have come’ Statements in Matthew’s Gospel,” CBQ 60 (1988): 44–62 who argues that these statements are all ultimately meant to be read as a fulfillment of Matthew 1:21-23, in which Jesus’ mission is first announced. Furthermore see R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1989; repr., Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 166–205.

[12] See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 183, who, commenting on Matthew 11:23, writes, “The law is thus linked with the prophets as looking forward to a time of fulfillment which has now arrived. The Torah, then, is not God’s last word to his people, but is in a sense provisional, looking forward to a time of fulfillment through the Messiah.”

[13] See, e.g., Isa 2:3; 42:4; 51:4; Mic 4:2.

[14] See, e.g., Isa 4:4; 30:22; 35:8; 52:1, 11; Jer 33:8; 43:12 Ezek 36:25, 29, 33; 37:23; 39:12, 14, 16, 24; 43:20, 22–23; 44:23; 45:18; Dan 11:35; 12:8; Zech 13:1, 2; 14:21; Mal 3:3.

[15] This expectation is especially seen in the Dead Sea Community whose eschatological outlook was inextricably linked with strict Torah observance and purity concerns. Numerous texts could be mentioned here. 4Q394–399 explains that the community separated themselves from the people because of the need to escape the impurity that had resulted from disobedience to the Law. 1Q28 V, 7–12 explains that all enrolled in the community—which was apparently understood in terms of the eschatological remnant (e.g., CD VI, 19; VIII, 21; XV, 5–8; XIX, 33–34; XX, 10–12)—were required to swear an oath to keep the Law of Moses (CD XV, 7–10). 1Q28 III, 4–6 explains that he who is not a part of the community is defiled. Furthermore, the Temple Scroll looks forward to the coming of the eschatological age in which purity will be restored (cf. 11Q19 47.3–17). For a fuller discussion, see Hannah K. Harrington, “Purity” in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. L. H. Schiffman and J. C. VanderKam; 2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 724–29; Karen J. Wenell, Jesus and Land: Sacred and Social Space in Second Temple Judaism (LNTS 334; London: T & T Clark, 2007), 85–91. The eradication of impurity and the establishment of righteousness is also a major theme in Psalms of Solomon 17 (cf. 17:22, 26–27, 30, 32). In addition, see Jubilees 50:5: “And jubilees will pass until Israel is purified from all the sin of fornication, and defilement, and uncleanness, and sin and error. And then it will not have any Satan or evil (one). And the land will be purified from that time and forever” (OTP, 2:142).

[16] Certain passages even indicate the coming of a new Torah. The Targum on Isaiah 12:3 reads: “And you will accept a new teaching with joy from the chosen ones of righteousness” (Chilton, Isaiah Targum, 29). Likewise, see Midrash Ecclesiastes 2:1: “All the Torah which you learn in this world is ‘vanity’ in comparison with Torah [which will be learnt] in the World to Come” (cited from M. Simon, ed., Midrash Rabbah, VIII: Ruth, Ecclesiastes [London/New York: Soncino Press, 1983], 51). The new law is even specifically linked with the Messiah: “God will sit and expound a new Torah which he will give, on days, by the hand of the Messiah” (Yalqut on Isa 26:2). See Davies, Setting, 183-90 (446–47); idem., Torah in the Messianic Age and/or the Age to Come (SBLMS 7; Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1952). Of course, these texts are of course difficult to date and do appear somewhat obscure. See Peter Schäfer, “Die Torah der messianischen Zeit,” ZNW 65 (1974): 27–42.

[17] See John D. Watts, Isaiah 1–33 (WBC 24; rev. ed.; Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 315: “This is the most positive interpretation of the outward flow of population from Israel in the OT (comparable only to the NT’s commissions in Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). . . An altar implies sacrifice and a priesthood (perhaps, though not necessarily, even a temple).” The passage of course goes on to describe how the Assyrians will join with the Egyptians in worshipping the Lord (cf. Isa 19:23).

[18] The inconsistency is recognized by many scholars. See Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 192: “Isa 56:1–8 which in Jesus’ day would have been understood as eschatological, plainly depicts the undoing of Deuteronomy’s exclusion of eunuchs from the temple.” See, e.g., the discussion in Grace J. Emmerson, Isaiah 56–66 (OTG; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 15: “Deut 23:1–3 is replaced by a new prophetic torah by which both foreigners and eunuchs . . . are welcomed into the worshipping community.” Others have also made this point. See, e.g., Amy L. Grant-Henderson, Inclusive Voices in Post-Exilic Judah (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 2–3; William F. Herzog, Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 140–41; John Oswalt, Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah: Studies of an Interpretive Tradition (2 vols.; eds. C. C. Broyles and C. A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 1:426; idem., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 458. It should also be mentioned that the rabbinic literature also recognized that some laws would not endure after the coming of the Messiah. For example, as we mentioned above, it was believed that, with the exception of the thank offering, sacrifices would cease (cf. Pesiq. Rab. 12; Lev. Rab. 9.7). Likewise, Yalqut on Proverbs 9:2 explains that all the festivals will cease except Purim and the Day of Atonement. The Midrash on Psalm 146:7 suggests that the kosher laws will pass away. See the further discussion in Davies, Torah in the Messianic Age, 50–83; idem., Setting of the Sermon on the Mount, 161–72.

[19] This view has been gaining adherents in recent research. See, e.g., France, Gospel of Matthew, 183–84; idem., Matthew, 113–14; Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Gospels, 203–35; idem., “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law: Authenticity and Interpretation in Matthew 5:17–20,” JBL 93 (1974): 226–42; John P. Meier, Law and History in Matthew’s Gospel, 41–124, especially 160–61; Guelich, Sermon on the Mount, 134–74; Douglas J. Moo, JSNT 20 (1984): 3–49; Yong-Eui Yang, Jesus and the Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel (JSNTSup 139; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 106–20, 128–29; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 1:486–87; Keener, Matthew, 177–78; M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” 189; Turner, Matthew, 162; Gundry, Matthew, 78–81.

[20] See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 1:487: “. . . if the law is fulfilled, it cannot on that account be set aside. Fulfillment can only confirm the Torah’s truth, not cast doubt upon it.” Helpful also is the conclusion offered by France (Gospel of Matthew, 186), who sums up the meaning of v. 18 as follows: “The jots and tittles are there to be fulfilled, not discarded, and that is what Jesus has come to do. They are not lost, but taken up into the eschatological events to which they pointed forward. . . [W]e might paraphrase the whole saying as follows: ‘The law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth, and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that it points forward to will in fact become a reality.’ Now that that reality has arrived in Jesus, the jots and tittles will be seen in a new light, but they still cannot be discarded.”

[21] See Andrew Chester, Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology (WUNT 207; Tubingen: Brill, 2007), 505: “[W]hat we have in these Antitheses is an eschatological transcending of the provision of the Torah. That does not mean that the Torah is abandoned, or simply contradicted. But in this altogether new age, Torah is now taken to an utterly new level. It is both taken up and transformed. Thus it is now fulfilled in the truest sense. . . . What [Jesus’ teaching] involves, in fact, is potentially a whole way of life that takes on a radically new dimension, and transcends what has been countenanced hitherto.” See also Harrington, Matthew, 90: “Since the antitheses follow Matt 5:17–20 which affirms that Jesus came not to abolish but to ‘fulfill’ the Law and the Prophets, it would seem that the antitheses are intended to illustrate in what that fulfillment consists.”


Nick said...

Jesus is using rabbinic language: "You have heard it said...but I say to you" is the way ancient Rabbis used to expound upon the Law.

Not that Jesus is a Rabbi, just as Saint Paul is not a Zealot.

Nick said...

"Frequently, the formulation 'You have heard it said,,..but I say to you...', found in the Sermon on the Mount, is presented as evidence of his opposition to the traditions. Actually, this statement reflects a rabbinic formula used to indicate that a particular interpretation of the Bible may not be valid in the fullest sense. In other words, it implies: 'One might hear so and so ... but there is a teaching to say that the words should rather be taken in this sense.' In fact, this is a phrase that Rabbi Ishmael—a contemporary of Yeshua and one of the foremost scholars cited in the Talmud—used frequently (cf. Mekilta 3a, 6a, et al.)."

From Jesus Through Jewish Eyes

Carlos said...

Thank you a lot for this!

I remember once a jewish friend of mine asked me what I thought about this passage. And I had think a lot in it since that day!
It's a passage very difficult to understand (and put into practice!), and it's easy misunderstand the role of the Law in the New Covenant. Some people still today believes in "obey the Law literally" is the important thing, and uses the Law to attack other people. What a mistake! That was not the Law's objective.
I hope that all we can reach a better fraternal relationship with our brothers and with God through Our Lord Jesus.

from Chile!

Patrick Lynch said...

Anglicans, while not holding it to be inspired scripture, do read Sirach in the Daily Office.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Michael. Excellent as always. Nick suggests that other rabbis used the formula "you have heard it said ..." Thanks for sharing that, Nick. I guess the difference is that Jesus also said things like "There is something greater than Solomon here." As well as a hundred other sayings that no ordinary rabbi would say. So when you put that together with "You have heard it said" it seems to me that the phrasing takes son a more significant meaning.

On another note, I loved the "best of" quotes from Sirach. Perhaps they could use one of those in moview theaters before the show starts:

"Where there is entertainment, do not pour out talk;"