Jesus has already stated that the purpose of his ministry was in no way to destroy the Law and the prophets (that is, the Old Testament) but to fulfill them. In this passage he begins to flesh out what that means. He seeks to bring the Old Testament law and teaching into its fulfillment by expounding its inner intent and purpose for the people of his own day.
In “fulfilling” the law, he fills it up with meaning, demonstrating how it reveals to us the will and purpose of God. It is for this reason that the Israelites meditated upon the law — seeking not just to keep it but to understand its inner meaning.
This passage begins a series of antithesis statements: “You have heard that it was said…”But I say….” In doing this he in no way seeks to undermine the importance or authority of the Old Testament’s teaching. He is stating the inner intent of the law — the spiritual significance of the law — for the moral and spiritual lives of the people. Notice that his sayings in these verses do not relax the law — in fact, they make them more demanding. In Jesus’ teaching the issue is not just murder, but destructive anger and rage. In Jesus’ teaching the issue is not just adultery, but the lust that makes people into objects. The issue is not how you make an oath, the issue is basic honesty.
Jesus seeks to establish among his disciples a righteousness greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees — not more meticulous, but more in line with the will and purpose of God revealed behind the letter of the law. And, we need to remind ourselves what Jesus’ perspective on the law really was. In Matthew 22:36-40 when Jesus is asked, ““Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he replies this way: ““‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In light of this, we would expect that Jesus’ explanation of the inner meaning of the Law and the Prophets would show us how these laws and teachings reflect the law of love.
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐ φονεύσεις· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχύ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ· ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν, ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.
“‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.'” (NRSV).
For Jesus the law against murder reveals the will of God against the devaluing of human life. Jesus pushes this law to a spiritual conclusion. As I’ve said already, this in no way relaxes the law, it makes it even more demanding. It is no longer about outward actions alone. Now it is also about inward motivations that lead to sins like murder.
Jesus words are emphatic: ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν…. The “I” is in the emphatic position and because the verb already expresses the sense of the pronoun, its very presence in the phrase is emphatic. Think about it. This is a very shocking way of talking, in the midst of a people who have cherished the inspiration and truthfulness of its Torah. Of the Torah he says “You have heard that it was said to people long ago (τοῖς ἀρχαίοις)….” He stands before them as the new authoritative interpreter of the ancient Torah’s instructions. It is important that we recognize the implicit claim to authority being made here. Wesley comments:
Which of the prophets ever spake thus? Their language is, Thus saith the Lord. Who hath authority to use this language, but the one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.
Murder is a sin, but so is hatred. Hatred devalues human life. Hatred says to another person: “you fool.” And, here’s the problem: who hasn’t done this? Do we expect to avoid the judgement of God because we have never physically murdered anyone? Jesus says, think again. Hatred directed toward another human being — also created in the image of God — is subject to the judgement of God. And, I believe Jesus means what he says — such hatred is to have no place in our lives. What is prohibited here is murderous intent.
This is one of those passages where Jesus speaks of Hell: τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός (“the Hell of fire). This has generally been interpreted as a reference to a place of eternal torment in the afterlife. But, it was a reference to an actual, physically place. The Greek word γέεννα (Gehenna) is a transliteration of a Hebrew word referring the Valley of Hinnom. This was a ravine south of Jerusalem which was once associated with the pagan god Moloch and the rites of his worship (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Ezekiel 16:20; 23:37) — rites that included human sacrifice — and which were prohibited in the Old Testament law (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5). Preachers and Bible commentators often claim that this was also the site of a burning garbage dump outside the city — though it appears that this is very doubtful — the only evidence of this being a comment by the Jewish commentator Kimchi in 1200 A.D. — for which there is no other support. So, the best explanation of the “fire” of Gehenna is a reference to the fires that consumed the human sacrifices that were offered to Moloch in that valley. This is generally taken as a reference to a place of judgement and burning in the afterlife — though some insist it is a metaphor for destruction. But, I don’t think Jesus’ primary intent here is to lay out for us the geography of the afterlife — his intent is to show is the seriousness of destructive hatred — something we too often take lightly.
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.
“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that 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 for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 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 for your whole body to go into hell.'” (NRSV).
Here again, Jesus spiritualizes the law by pushing it into the area of human motivation. Okay, you know that adultery is wrong, he says, but what about the lust that dehumanizes people and sees them as objects to be possessed? This, too, is wrong. The word that is translated “lust” here is ἐπιθυμέω which signifies strong desire. The key to its meaning here is to be found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (commonly called the Septuagint). There, in the Ten Commandments, the word ἐπιθυμέω is used for “coveting.” (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21). And, in the context of the Old Testament such coveting was far more than just an idle thought — it involved thought and planning (notice how the idea is used in Exodus 34:24 and Micah 2:2). That is its significance here — it is not simply a reference to sexual attraction — that is natural and involuntary (and therefore not moral in and of itself) — it a reference to the strong desire to possess. Such an attitude sees a human being as a thing to be possessed or to be used. 2 Peter 2:14 refers to people who “… have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin.” (NRSV). So here, what is being prohibited is not a look as such, nor sexual attraction as such, but rather looking “for the purpose of coveting” (πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι).
Again, notice how this is contrary to the law of love — which Jesus affirms to be the central meaning of all the Law and the Prophets. To view a person as a thing is a sin in and of itself.
It is not the body itself that causes us to sin, it the cherishing of selfish desires. And, we are better off without them.
Ἐρρέθη δέ· ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ, δότω αὐτῇ ἀποστάσιον. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ, μοιχᾶται.
“‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'” (NRSV).
This saying expands on the reference to adultery in the previous passage. For that reason, the form of this saying is different than the others. Jesus insists on fidelity in marriage. The Old Testament acknowledged and regulated divorce (see Deuteronomy 24). Jesus goes beyond it — again, teaching something far more demanding. The marriage vow should be kept. Love for God and love for others demands it. Marriage in the ancient world was a basic institution of society that insured the survival of the tribe or nation. Marriages were arranged because it could not be left to the whims of the individual. The continued lineage of the people was a stake. Marriage was about procreation. There was no romantic myth of love and self-fulfillment and “living happily ever after.” It was about fulfilling your duty to the extended family and to the nation. Marriage commitment provided a stable foundation in which the next generation could be raised. But, Jesus’ primary concern here is the position that divorce forces upon the divorced woman — who, at the time had few rights in that society. There is also an issue here about barren women, who, if divorced by their husband, had few rights, no means of financial support and little social standing at the time. The emphasis in Jesus’ teaching is about the keeping of vows and promises — not about the selfish search for the fulfillment of desires and whims.
The making and keeping of vows and promises is one of the most spiritually formative we can do in our lives.
No doubt Jesus was speaking out against the common practices of the times. Adam Clarke remarks:
The Jewish doctors gave great license in the matter of divorce. Among them, a man might divorce his wife if she displeased him even in the dressing of his victuals! Rabbi Akiba said, “If any man saw a woman handsomer than his own wife, he might put his wife away; because it is said in the law, If she find not favour in his eyes.” Deut. xxiv. 1. Josephus, the celebrated Jewish historian, in his Life, tells us, with the utmost coolness and indifference, “About this time I put away my wife, who had borne me three children, not being pleased with her manners.” These two cases are sufficient to show to what a scandalous and criminal excess this matter was carried among the Jews. However, it was allowed by the school of Shammai, that no man was to put away his wife unless for adultery. The school of Hillel gave much greater license.
Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ, μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ, μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως, μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν. ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.
“‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.'” (NRSV).
It was apparently a custom in those times to hedge one’s answers by oaths. “I swear by my head” “I swear by God’s throne” And, so forth. Jesus says our answers should be straightforward and true. We should keep our oaths — or not give them. We are not to deceive others. Truth and faithfulness do not need oaths. And, it is God’s will that we be people of truth and faithfulness.
So, here is how Jesus begins to flesh out what he means by not abolishing the law but fulfilling it. The law has a spiritual intent — it is not simply a list of rules we must keep so that God will not get mad at us. It is spiritually formative. That is why it is good to meditate on God’s law — to perceive the inner meaning behind the commands themselves.
It is faith, hope and love that truly establish God’s law in our lives.