Thoughts on the Way Home

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The "Antitheses" in the Sermon on the Mount - Stephen Westerholm


Stephen Westerholm on the antitheses of Matthew 5:21-48:

In each case, Jesus distinguishes his own teaching (“But I say unto you...”) from what was “said to those of ancient times.” The suggestion that Jesus here merely interprets provisions in Torah comes to grief in those cases where he prohibits what Torah explicitly allowed (5:31-32, 33-37, 38-42). But it also fails to do justice to the contrast drawn in the antithetic formulation itself between ancient dictum and the authoritative declaration of Jesus: “You have heard...but I say.” Yet the contrast is not that between unrighteousness and righteousness, but that between limited statements of what God requires and its ultimate expression. Something of God's intention was, after all, captured in the prohibition of murder and adultery, in the laws related to divorce, oaths, and revenge: for that reason, Jesus is not seen as simply “doing away” with Torah's stipulations. But the “kingdom of heaven,” the antitheses insist, requires a righteousness that transcends conformity with these laws of Torah.

Part of the point appears to be that the focus of certain laws in Torah is limited to what is legally enforceable. Murder may be prohibited by law, and the prohibition is indeed essential to the smooth functioning of earthly societies. But God's will for his creatures is violated by angry assertions of self-will and contempt for others as much as by the act of killing (5:21-22). The Mosaic law forbids adultery; but regarding another lustfully, as a mere occasion for one's own sexual gratification, is equally sinful (5:27-28). The law made provision for divorce, for oaths, for equitable punishments: all measures designed to limit the effects of evil in society. But mere limiting of evil, though a worthy goal, does not measure up to the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.

And there is more to be said. The goodness required in the Sermon on the Mount is not the same thing as careful compliance with even the most perfect and comprehensive code of law. Such observance, to be sure, contributes greatly to the order and stability of society. But, by itself, compliance with laws falls far short of the spontaneous selflessness, the uncalculated generosity, the unstinted love of God and all his creatures that God desires in his children (cf. Matt 5:39-48; 6:25-33; 18:21-22). The goodness of the kingdom is related to joy, to thankfulness, to appreciativeness, though none of these qualities need accompany the most fervent strivings to measure up to commands. It is the fruit of genuine, unselfconscious delight and whole-hearted trust in the goodness of God (cf. Matt 6:8, 25-33; 7:11). It requires, in Matthew's gospel, the radical reorientation of the human heart toward God brought about by the experience of the power and goodness of his kingdom: only “good trees” can bear “good fruit” (7:17). Jesus' ethical teaching in Matthew is more concerned to evoke a vision than to prescribe precise limits of acceptable behaviour: in poetic, dramatic, often hyperbolic language, the Matthean Jesus illustrates the kind of attitude and action that should characterize those who know themselves to be God's children.

-Taken from Westerholm's The Law and the Gospel

If anyone would like a copy of the complete article, please email me and I would be happy to provide one.