Jesus makes further two statements: first, He says that he came to fulfil the Law of the Old Testament; second, that the righteousness of His followers should surpass that of the most religious people of that time.
Be Good at Heart
In the rest of chapter 5, from verses 21 to the end of the chapter, Jesus fleshes out the working of these two basic statements in real-life situations. One must remember that what Jesus says in what follows are not yet another set of rules that Jesus’ followers should keep religiously and legalistically. Instead, they are illustrations and examples of the kind of people that His followers are to be: truly good and righteous people in their hearts.
The Heart of The Problem
Jesus is the discoverer of the principle that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Jesus, first, talks about anger. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder and whoever murders is liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, ‘Whoever is angry is liable to judgment.'”
Jesus’ point is that murder is the fruit whose root is anger; murder is the symptom whose disease is anger. And so, the most effective way of dealing with this great evil is not simply by addressing it directly but by addressing it sincerely! You do not deal with the hand that wields the weapon of murder. Instead, you deal with the heart that breeds the ailment.
Jesus similarly talks about adultery and traces its roots to the deepest level. For Jesus, adultery is a symptom of a more significant disease of the lustful heart and the wandering eyes. True righteousness, the righteousness that is not merely outward, consists in dealing with the root of lust and not just the shoot of adultery.
The Hardness of the Heart
Next, Jesus talks about divorce. Jesus’ point on divorce here is that the certificate of divorce, which the Old Testament Law permitted, was just that –permission; it was permission for divorce, not an endorsement or encouragement of divorce. In another passage in the Gospels, Jesus said that the certificate of divorce which Moses gave was necessitated and begrudged precisely because of the hardness of people’s hearts.
The hardness of heart of married couples who cannot be persuaded to live together by accommodating and tolerating each other’s imperfections and frailties. The key is to deal with the problem of the hardness of the heart. And for Jesus’ followers, who are given new hearts of flesh to replace their hearts of stones, divorce must thus be but the unlikeliest and the extremity of events.
Jesus then talks about taking oaths. Jesus’ point is that the purpose of oaths is to encourage and ensure truth-telling. But, part of the irony and paradox of taking oaths is that taking oaths, which seeks to safeguard truth-telling, is necessitated precisely because of the widespread human tendency to tell lies.
For example, if I tell a person something, and if that person insists that I take an oath concerning that statement, the oath would, yes, assure that person that the statement being told is true. However, the fact that the person insists on my taking the oath means that he does not trust me as a truth-teller.
So Jesus’ solution here is that we, His followers, should be such people of integrity, and known as such people, that the taking of oaths would be completely unnecessary. We should be such people whose “yes” is yes and whose “no” is no. And people should know us as such people to be able to say of us, “If he’s said it to be so, it must be so.” Or, “If she’s said it to be no, it must be no.”
The Idea of Perfection
Jesus then talks about retaliation quoting from the Old Testament law, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We must remember that what Moses gave in the Old Testament was a principle of justice – the proportionality of justice.
In Moses’ time, people often went beyond the essential requirement of justice. Moses’ principle – “an eye for an eye” – was not setting a standard but a limit. Moses was saying, at the most, it must be an eye for an eye, not eyes for an eye; a tooth for a tooth, not teeth for a tooth. Thus, Jesus was not contradicting Moses’ law as such but stretching it further.
Jesus ends chapter 5 with the principle of loving our enemies. And this love of enemies is the highest human ideal, for it is the ideal of God’s perfection.
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