When I was in college I took history of Judaism and Hebrew Bible courses. These were two of my favorite classes, both of them taught by a Jewish Rabbi. As I was reading the lessons for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, one of his class sessions came back to me. We were discussing the various laws that mark out the everyday activities of a Jewish person. Specifically we were talking about some of the underlying reasons for Kosher dietary laws. For example, it is well known that a person who keeps Kosher will not eat meat and dairy products at the same time, or eat one that has been prepared in proximity to the other, so that there is any possibility of touching or intermingling. The origins of this practice are less well known. It comes from the ritual commandments in the Book of Exodus, one of which says: “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26). There is a sense of humanity in refusing to cook the young of a species in the milk of its mother. While one might be logically able to cook a kid (young goat) in the milk of some other goat or even some other mammal, the easiest way to ensure compliance is to simply not eat meat and dairy products together. This practice is known as building a fence around the law, i.e. the formulation of rules that act as behavioral guides that prevent the breaking–even inadvertent–of greater commandments.
It is interesting that Jesus does something similar in today’s Gospel. Over the past several weeks we have been reflecting on portions of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. We began with the portion that most people remember best, the beatitudes (where we heard Jesus pronounce God’s blessing on folks that would’ve been surprising to his listeners) and we continued with his teaching that those who follow him are to be Salt & Light to the world. The sermon on the mount continues across several chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, and we haven’t reached the end yet.
In today’s lesson, Jesus gets specific with his disciples about what it means to be salt–that is, to live a righteous life. He addresses anger, lust, adultery, divorce and oath taking. He instructs his disciples in a series of statements or theses followed by antitheses, using the formula “You have heard that it was said…” followed by his interpretation/teaching which is introduced with “But I say to you…”
Some scholars talk about this type of teaching in terms of intensification and abrogation. In other words there are times when Jesus’ teaching is an intensification of the law found in the Old Testament, while in other instances he seems to abrogate them, or indicate that they are no longer in force. This interpretive tool, while helpful, does not seem to apply in the case of Matthew’s Gospel. For Matthew, the category to consider is not intensification, but fulfillment. Jesus says plainly that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. This teaching is Jesus’ teaching on how to fulfill the Law. The form that it takes, seems very similar in form to the “fence building” practiced by later Rabbis (and probably other Pharisees of the day).
Jesus begins by addressing the subject of murder,
Thesis: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'”
Antithesis: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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.”
Anger, in Jesus’ teaching, is the root of murder. Resisting the one prevents the other, and therefore avoids judgement. The anger that is referred to here is not the emotion that we get when someone wrongs us or wounds us–that is a healthy emotion that tells us something is wrong. Jesus himself demonstrated his anger at the money lenders in the Temple, when he not only ran them out, he ran them out with a whip of chords that he took the time to make. Clearly there is a place for a righteous anger. The difficulty is that none of us is Jesus. We are not capable of hanging onto anger and having it remain righteous. We have to let go of our anger. The anger that Jesus warns us against is harbored anger, anger that boils because the flames have been fanned–anger that turns to hatred and motivates sinful actions–even the most extreme, such as murder.
Likewise, for Jesus, lust is the root of adultery.
Thesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
Antithesis: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Lust differs from simple attraction in the same way that harbored anger or hate differs from healthy anger. Finding someone attractive is not sinful. Lingering thoughts and fantasies are, because it is out of these that harmful and sinful actions develop. Avoiding the former prevents the latter.
In his teaching, Jesus is “sharpening the Torah,” clarifying what it means to keep the spirit of the law, as well as the letter. He is moving his disciples–moving us–from the realm of the external to the internal. A little further on in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus reminds his followers that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out, saying “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:18).
In a sense, these teachings are difficult for us today, not because they are hard to understand, but because they seem hard to keep, especially, if I had to hazard a guess, in terms of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, where he draws a more strict interpretation. It only helps us a little to know that his interpretation was actually helpful to women of the day, who otherwise (in the majority opinion) be divorced at will by their husbands without recourse and without hope of support. It only helps a little because, for us, in our predominantly egalitarian day and age, the standard of marital indissolubility is difficult. But it would be wrong to interpret this in a legalistic way. Marriage is meant to be lifelong, and Jesus’ teachings on marriage are clearly more strict than others, but grace is present.
The final issue Jesus addresses in the Gospel reading, is that of oath taking. In this, Jesus does something that he does in other ways during his ministry: he hearkens back to some of the core commandments of Israel: the decalogue (Ten Commandments) and sets out oath taking as violating the 3rd (You shall not invoke with malice, the Name of the Lord Your God) and 9th (You shall not be a false witness) commandments. Jesus emphasizes the foolishness of swearing oaths by highlighting the powerlessness of human beings. We cannot possibly control God, we can’t even control the color of our hair (the ancient world knew of hair dye; there is an irony here, because even when someone’s hair is dyed, their original hair color remains–they haven’t actually changed anything, hence the point).
In each of these examples, Jesus demonstrates how important intention, and the disposition of one’s heart is. As the early Church father Origen put it:
“To give assent to sin is already a completed evil, even if someone does not actually commit the deed. And by this saying our Savior, hurling away from the cause of sins, endeavors to cut sin off completely. For when this intention is not present in our souls, neither shall the action accompany it.” (Origen, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume Ia, p. 104)
This is goes hand in hand with Augustine’s view of lying, for instance, which was that a person must know that they are telling a falsehood in order for them to lie. If they believe they are telling the truth, even if the information is false, they are not guilty of lying. Alternatively, if someone told the truth, but believed it to be false, they would be guilty of lying: culpability follows intent. The challenge for us is work daily to purify our thoughts and intentions so that we do not present ourselves or others with an occasion for sin, but instead increase the opportunities for righteous living and service to others.