Are You Contradicting Me? Reflections on Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2014
When a parent asks their child: "Are you contradicting me?" there is really no right answer. If the child says "no," they are contradicting them. If the child says "yes," they are contradicting them. Is Jesus contradicting the law? Jesus' antitheses' answer to that question is "Yes and No." In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus offers a series of six "antitheses" or contrasts.
In these teachings, which Jesus prefaces with the words "You have heard it said, but I say to you..." (5:21-48), Jesus is presented as the God-authorized interpreter of the law. The verses that precede the antitheses clarify the relationship between Jesus and the law and between his followers and the law.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
A helpful paraphrase of verse 17 would be: "Do not suppose that my mission is to abrogate (repeal or do away with) the law or the prophets' interpretation of the law; my mission is not to abrogate but rather to confirm the law and the prophets by interpreting Scripture in terms of God's ultimate will." (Hare, 23) Verse 18 indicates that Jesus shared the view of Scripture of first-century Jews: that it was inspired by God and could not be set aside. Verse 19 is probably aimed at radical Christians who rejected the authority of Scripture. Disagreements about how to interpret certain passages abounded then as now. Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and others disagreed vociferously about how various passages should be interpreted and applied.
This high view of scripture did not prevent innovations in interpretation that departed radically from the strict letter of the law. By Jesus' day, many prescriptions of the Mosaic code had become dead letters, including most of the death penalty rules. Thus Matthew's Jesus can affirm the authority of Scripture and that it will be fulfilled in God's good kingdom (when "heaven and earth pass away"). He can also affirm that his interpretation is authoritative, in keeping with the ultimate will of God. When the scribes taught, they cited other rabbinical interpretations to give their own credibility. So when Jesus finished his Sermon on the Mount, "the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes" (7:28-29).
Faithfulness to his interpretation leads to a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, not in quantity, but in quality. The Pharisees were concerned to preserve the distinctiveness of Judaism and had numerous interpretations of Torah concerning ritual cleanliness, dietary habits, and Sabbath activities. These were designed to be constant reminders of God's faithfulness in the midst of the details of everyday life. In practice, they could become substitutes for inward obedience.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.