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Thought for the day  

It is clear already in the Old Testament that it is not our misdeeds which accuse us before God, but our hearts, fractured and divided as they are. Consistent with Israelite teaching, Jesus insists that we go deeper than our external deeds. The important question is what is going on in our hearts, the source of inner thoughts and motivations? The teaching is presented using various examples, presented sometimes with great simplicity, other times with irony and wit.


O God, you read our hearts and you know us even better than we know ourselves. Let us trust your knowledge of us and your call to true conversion of heart, for you desire only our good that we may be both whole and holy.


Matthew 5:17 ‘Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete. 18 Truly I tell you: so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot, will disappear from the law until all that must happen has happened. 19 Anyone therefore who sets aside even the least of the law’s demands, and teaches others to do the same, will have the lowest place in the kingdom of Heaven, whereas anyone who keeps the law, and teaches others to do so, will rank high in the kingdom of Heaven. 20 I tell you, unless you show yourselves far better than the scribes and Pharisees, you can never enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 5:21   ‘You have heard that our forefathers were told, “Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to justice.” 22 But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice. Whoever calls his brother “good for nothing” deserves the sentence of the court; whoever calls him “fool” deserves hell-fire. 23 So if you are presenting your gift at the altar and suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, 24 leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make your peace with your brother; then come back and offer your gift. 25 If someone sues you, come to terms with him promptly while you are both on your way to court; otherwise he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into jail. 26 Truly I tell you: once you are there you will not be let out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 5:27   ‘You have heard that they were told, “Do not commit adultery.” 28 But what I tell you is this: If a man looks at a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes your downfall, tear it out and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand causes your downfall, cut it off and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to go to hell.
Matthew 5:31   ‘They were told, “A man who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of dismissal.” 32 But what I tell you is this: If a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unchastity he involves her in adultery; and whoever marries her commits adultery.
Matthew 5:33   ‘Again, you have heard that our forefathers were told, “Do not break your oath,” and “Oaths sworn to the Lord must be kept.” 34 But what I tell you is this: You are not to swear at all—not by heaven, for it is God’s throne, 35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King, 36 nor by your own head, because you cannot turn one hair of it white or black. 37 Plain “Yes” or “No” is all you need to say; anything beyond that comes from the evil one.

Initial observations

This is a very long reading, which includes the very important introduction in vv. 17-20. The lectionary divides the subsequent antitheses into two groups (four today and the remaining two from vv.38-48 the following Sunday). Much scholarly ink has been spilt on the first four verses because they seem to put the Law, the Torah, firmly back at the centre of Christian existence. A great deal depends on the interpretation of “fulfil”. It looks as if the Matthean community has made significant adjustments to its observance of the Law and is open to the accusation of having abandoned key elements. Matthew stresses continuity with the first covenant while at the same time holding that fulfilling the Law might include transcending it. The Biblical prophecies have been fulfilled. Because of the Christ event, the ethical requirements have been transcended and deepened. A key interpretative verse is found later in the Gospel: Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:34–35) In the ethical commandments, Jesus first reaffirms and then radicalises.

Kind of writing

Vv. 17-20 constitute a kind of statement of principle for interpreting the Law, the Torah. The antitheses which follow all imply an a fortiori (“all the more so”) argument. Sometimes an extended amplification accompanies the teaching. Two things are noticeable. Firstly, there is a claim to authority higher than the Torah in the words “but I say to you”. This helps us, at least in part, to understanding the statement of principle: the Christian reception of Jewish moral practice is towards the interior attitude rather than the external observance. Of course, Judaism also knows this but Matthew no doubt is writing in a context of antagonism between Rabbinic Judaism and what we may called Messianic or Christian Judaism. Hence, the very sharp tone and contrasts. The following antitheses are in two triads (ignored in the lectionary): the first three are amplified with more sayings; the second three are presented on their own.

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Old Testament background

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. (Deuteronomy 4:2) Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16) Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6) For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless. (Malachi 2:16)

New Testament foreground

In Matthew’s Gospel, there is a complex three-fold attitude to the Torah, summarised in these verses.
Abuse of the Law: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23)
Heart of the Law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12) [Jesus] said to him, “‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40)
The “time” of the Law: For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:13–15) NB also the start of today’s first reading (see comment).

St Paul

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Romans 7:12)
Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:29)

Brief commentary

Verses 17-20 The fulfilment of the prophecies in Jesus is noted regularly in this Gospel (Matt 1:22; 2:15, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9), usually in the past tense. All has been accomplished and this relativizes the apparently absolute “heaven and earth”.
Verses 21-26 See Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17. Disparate sayings are appended to insist on the interior attitude as the heart of the matter. The link between worship and ethics is firmly made. As often in Matthew, ever the teacher, the final argument is in the form of a threat.
Verses 27-30 See Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18. The NRSV doesn’t quite capture the force of the original Greek, expressed better in the NET version: But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her (Matthew 5:28). Involuntary attraction is precisely involuntary; the problem is the movement to desire her. In the subsequent teaching, expressed with typical Jewish hyperbole, self-mutilation is not what is at stake but rather going beyond the symptoms to the root cause. The root cause is always the human heart, which it would be tricky to “tear out and throw away”!!!
Verses 31-32 See Dt 24:1-4 (NB also Mal 2:14-15). See also Mt 19:3-9, where the same exception arises. It seems clear that the historical Jesus simply forbade divorce. The early church, however, allowed it in some circumstances. The meaning of “unchastity” is disputed. A standard dictionary offers these interpretations: 1. unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication, 2. participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication 3. immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication. In any case, Matthew’s church “adjusted” the blanket prohibition to deal with reality. Forbidden degrees of consanguinity may well be the best contextualised hypothesis, because Matthew does say “unchastity” here.
Verses 33-34 See Ex 20:7; Lev 19:12; Num 30:3; Dt 23:31. Cf. Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12)

Pointers for prayer

1. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proposes standards that go beyond external ways of behaviour but challenge how we feel in our hearts. When have you found that living out of inner conviction is more life-giving than keeping up appearances?
2. Jesus applies his teaching to feelings of anger and sexual desire. He suggests that if we do not keep an eye on our feelings and thoughts we will not be able to control our actions. Perhaps you have experienced the truth of this. What has helped you to integrate your feelings so that you were able to live in right relationship with yourself and others?
3. For Jesus, persons with genuine authenticity do not need to swear an oath to be convincing. Their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ suffices. Recall people who had this kind of credibility for you. When have you found that your simple, direct and honest communication had a positive persuasive force?


All-seeing God, you alone judge rightly our inmost thoughts. Teach us to observe your law from the heart even as we keep it outwardly.
Purify our desires, calm every anger, and reconcile us to one another. Then will our worship at your altar render you perfect praise.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.