Criswell Theological Review 6.1 (1992) 43-56.

                          Copyright © 1992 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission.    





                     THE LAW IN THE SERMON ON

                        THE MOUNT: MATT 5:17-48




                                              STEPHEN WESTERHOLM

                                                     McMaster University

                                               Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4K1




“This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath”: so

runs one assessment of Jesus in John's Gospel (9:16). It is decidedly not

the view of the evangelist, for whom the contrary claim--that Jesus is

"the one God sent" (3:34)--is a fundamental and recurrent theme. We

may well find it strange, in view of the obvious logic behind the oppo-

nents' charge (God gave the Sabbath; Jesus does not keep it; therefore

Jesus cannot represent God) that John would even permit its expres-

sion: why, we may wonder, would John make his own task more diffi-

cult by noting plausible grounds on which it might well be doubted,

and has by many been doubted, that Jesus came "from God"?

            John's response to the charge, a fascinating subject in itself,1 can-

not be explored here. We should note, however, that the Jesus of the

synoptic Gospels repeatedly invites the same easy dismissal as that ut-

tered by "some Pharisees" in John 9:16: clearly it was too common a

perception, too vital an element in Jesus’ story, for the evangelists to

pass it by. Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew in particular feels the

urgency of responding to the issue. Jesus' relation to Moses and the


            1 In fact, no direct answer to the opponents' charge is given; its refutation is rather

worked out in an implicit way in the narrative of the Gospel. In the immediate context

we see how the opponents' logic, when pressed to its end, leads to the absurd conclu-

sion that the healing of a blind man is the work of a sinner (9:24-33); clearly, John sug-

gests, what Jesus did must be construed differently, as a work of God (9:3, 33). In the

context of the Gospel as a whole, we may note the insistence throughout that what

Jesus does--even on the Sabbath--is God's work (e.g., 5:16-18), while the would-be “dis-

ciples of Moses” who criticize him (9:28-29) evidence no real loyalty to their supposed

teacher or to God (e.g., 5:39-47; 7:19-24).




Mosaic law is the focus of attention in Matt 5:17-48, and the occasion

for this extended treatment implicit in the introductory verse is

clearly the same perception as that we encountered in John. Some-

thing there was about Jesus' words and deeds which could be con-

strued as a setting aside of the Law;2 but that, Matthew wants us to

know, is a misconstruction. Jesus represents, not the Law's abrogation,

but its "fulfillment" (5:17). This bold claim, in apparent defiance of the

simple facts, is defended and developed in the verses that follow. But

before we examine the argument, the framework necessary for its in-

telligibility and force must be summarized briefly.


                        The Larger Context: The Dawn of God's "Rule"


            Important though the discussion of Jesus' relationship to Moses

may be for Matthew, it does not introduce the Sermon on the Mount;

nor, indeed, does the Sermon mark the start of Jesus' public activity in

Matthew's Gospel--and for good reason. To ask whether Jesus sets

aside or affirms the Mosaic code is tantamount to assessing new wine

from the perspective of what it does to old wineskins: there is point to

the inquiry, but it will hardly lead to an appreciation of the taste of

new wine. Matthew's portrayal of Jesus' public career begins with the

proclamation of the kingdom (4:17; 5:3): something new, the truly deci-

sive stage in the history of God's dealings with his people, has begun.

That history is a long one (cf. Matt 1:1-17!), but its movement was ever

forward, its mood till now anticipatory. Now the culmination of the

activity of the "law and the prophets," the yearning of "many prophets

and righteous people," is being realized (5:17; 13:17). The decisive rev-

elation must not be thought to lie in the past. Where Sinai is con-

strued as the crucial revelation, the criterion by which all that is

"new" must be judged (cf. John 9:29), departures from its standards in-

evitably appear as transgressions if not apostasy. But Matthew will

not allow the premise. And when the old revelation is interpreted in

the light of a new and decisive stage in salvation history, whatever

tensions between the two may arise must be attributed to the partial

nature of past revelation and its transcendence in the new.

            From Matthew's perspective, then, the starting point of any dis-

cussion of Jesus' relationship with "Moses" must be an understanding

of Jesus' role in the dawning "kingdom of heaven," God's "reign" or


            2 "Or the prophets," as Matt 5:17 goes on to say. That Jesus represents the "fulfill-

ment" of the prophetic Scriptures is of course an important Matthean theme as well;

but it is not the theme of our study here, nor, indeed, does it figure in the immediate se-

quel in Matthew, where the law (5:18) and its commands (5:19, 21,27, etc.) are the issue.


            Stephen Westerholm: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT    45


"rule."3 What is meant by the latter phrase? Among Jesus' contempo-

raries, it was used in at least the following three ways.

            (1) God's "rule" may refer simply to his control over the events

and people of history; in this sense the divine "rule" is seen as a

present and eternal reality, whether human beings acknowledge it or

not. The exercise of this "rule" is well illustrated in Daniel 4 where

Nebuchadnezzar successively has power, is deposed, and is restored

to his throne, all by the decree of God.

            (2) At the same time, however, the chapter illustrates the present

limitations on God's "rule," since it is not till the final stage that the

pagan king recognizes and submits to the sovereignty of the Most

High. Accordingly, God's "rule" may be spoken of in a more limited

sense as confined to those who submit to him, those to whom he has

revealed his ways and who strive to abide by them. Ideally, this in-

cluded all God's people: Israel was his "kingdom" (Exod 19:3-8; 1 Chr

28:5). In fact--and by definition--reprobate Jews as well as the vast

hordes of "God-less" Gentiles were excluded.

            (3) But, alas, there were more people like the early Nebuchadnez-

zar who knew not God than there were like the later Nebuchadnezzar

who had learned to worship him; lamentably, too, the means by which

the change in Nebuchadnezzar was brought about did not commend

itself as the solution on a larger scale. There was something not right,

something ultimately dissatisfactory and intolerable, about a world

which was made, sustained, and "ruled" by God, but which nonethe-

less failed to acknowledge its Creator or give him his due. That a dra-

matic transformation of present conditions was called for and awaited

was a staple element in the faith of many 1st-century Jews. Some, no

doubt, were content to be discontent with pagan domination over Is-

raeland longed for nothing more than a turning of the tables. But for

others, Israel's subservience to the empires of this world was but one

symptom of the evilness of the age. Tyranny and injustice would

surely not be allowed to prevail forever in God's world; inevitably, and

appropriately, the establishment of righteousness would be accompa-

nied by the filling of the earth with "the knowledge of the glory of the

Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Hab 2:14). That day would mark the

dawn of God's "rule" in its third and future sense, a "rule" over sub-

jects who owned and obeyed the God of Israel, a "rule" from which the

wicked would by definition be banished, while the vindicated righ-

teous would feast at a table spread by God.


            3 On basilei<a as "reign,” see G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus (Edinburgh: T. & T.

Clark, 1902) 91-96; for “heaven” as a circumlocution for “God,” see Matt 21:25; Luke 15:18.




            Readers familiar with the NT will recognize that the basic pat-

tern of belief summarized above is abundantly attested in the Gos-

pels. Here we must be content to underline briefly three aspects of

Matthew's portrayal of Jesus' proclamation of God's kingdom.

            (1) In all current understandings of the coming kingdom of God,

those participating in the divine rule would be the righteous; the

wicked would be excluded. Distinctive of Jesus' proclamation, how-

ever, is the concern whether an eternal consignment of men and,

women on that basis would leave God with any subjects to rule, with

any guests for his feast. The concern is most evident in the parable of

the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14), but implicit throughout. The sum-

mons to the kingdom is extended to notorious sinners, partly in the

conviction that a loving, compassionate God is not willing to give up

his claim on any potential subjects, but partly also in the conviction

that such "sinners" were scarcely further from the kingdom than the

ostensibly "righteous." Pious the latter might be, and rigorously atten-

tive to the most picayune details of God's law. But too often the zeal of

the pious, the Matthean Jesus proclaims, did not extend to the weight-

ier concerns of the divine will (23:23); its manifest motivation was too

often the securing of human praise (6:1-18; 23:5-7); its judgment of

those who failed to measure up to its standards ran counter to divine

priorities (9:13; 12:7). Hence even the "righteousness" of the "righ-

teous" was inadequate for admission to the kingdom (5:20), though,

disastrously, it was sufficient to blind many to their need for repen-

tance: as a result "tax collectors and harlots are going into the king-

dom of God before you" (21:28-32).

            (2) If the Jesus of the Gospels betrays an unusual sense that fit

subjects for God's kingdom were not to be found even among God's

people, it is also true that he is not content merely to announce the

imminent coming of the kingdom. People needed to be made righ-

teous, not simply identified as such. Jesus is portrayed in Matthew as

fulfilling that task in at least three ways: (a) he summons his listeners,

"sinners" and (ostensibly) "righteous" alike, to turn from their self-

serving sin to a life of radical faith in God and obedience to him;

(b) he offers divine love and forgiveness to all who will receive it--

again, "sinners" and "righteous" alike--though it can only be enjoyed

by those whose lives are thus transformed to radical faith and obedi-

ence; and (c) finally, since the sin of even those who claim to be God's

people is perceived as universal, deep-rooted, and corrupting, and

since God's forgiveness of, and triumph over, all that is evil can never

be reduced to a mere overlooking of human wickedness, Jesus offers

his own life to atone for human sins (1:21; 20:28; 26:28), thus enabling

people who fall far short of God's demands to participate, purged of

their sins, in the kingdom of heaven.


            Stephen Westerholm: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT    47


            (3) Inasmuch as Jesus' life and death are the divine means by

which a people fit for the kingdom is brought into being, his coming

represents the decisive stage in salvation history, the very dawning

(though not yet the final consummation) of God's "rule" in its third

and future sense. To humans created by God but captives of evil and

the Evil One, he brings divine deliverance (cf. Matt 12:28-29) and the

present joyous assurance of a part in the blessed age to come (Matt

5:3-12; 13:44-46).

            We may now return to the question with which we began. When

Jesus' relationship with the Mosaic law is seen in the light of the

dawning of the kingdom, apparent departures from the standards of

the law can no longer be construed simply as transgressions. In fact,

Matt 5:17 insists, Jesus did not "set aside" the law. The point of the de-

nial is at least twofold: Jesus must not be thought to have discounted

or ignored either the law's claim to be divine or the requirements of

righteousness which it embodied. Against the first misconstruction,

the Gospel insists (as we have noted) that Jesus represents rather the

culmination, the "fulfillment," of the sacred history begun in the "law

and the prophets." Against the second, the Gospel insists that the

kingdom righteousness which Jesus proclaims does not fall short of

the demands of Moses, nor lead to indifference toward its require-

ments (cf. Matt 5:19!); rather it transcends them, a more perfect em-

bodiment of the divine will.4 The latter claim is then illustrated with

the six antitheses which comprise the remainder of the chapter.


               The Immediate Context: The Sermon on the Mount


            Few texts have proven more controversial than the antitheses of

the Sermon on the Mount. A number of problems in their interpreta-

tion would, however, be avoided if the following basic principles

about the sermon were kept in view.

            (1) The theme of the Sermon on the Mount is essentially Jesus'

expectations of how his followers are to behave. Negatively, this

means that the sermon is not intended as a blueprint for reforming

the laws or institutions of earthly society. It is assumed throughout

that Jesus' true followers are and will remain a minority on earth,

subject to persecution (5:10-12) and abuse (5:39-40), living alongside

scribes and Pharisees, tax collectors and Gentiles, self-servers of both


            4 That plhrw?sai ("fulfill") includes this element of transcendence is rightly in-

sisted upon by W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison. Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commen-

tary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988)

486-87; cf. also 507-9. Such an understanding is required when we interpret (as Mat-

thew intended) 5:17 and 21-47 in the light of each other, as we shall see below.




crass and pious hue. That, in this age, Caesar must be given his due,

and that, for earthly society, the possibility of divorce represents a

necessary concession to human sinfulness are both allowed elsewhere

in the Gospel (22:21; 19:8). Jesus' expectations in the Sermon on the

Mount are directed not to those who are at home in this world,5 but to

those who are to stand out from the world as its "salt" and "light"

(5:13-16); those who, through knowing the heavenly Father, will tran-

scend the norms of human behavior (5:44-48; 6:1, 8, 32). To be sure,

there is a measure of righteousness even in this age. Scribes and

Pharisees avoid murder and adultery and give alms to the poor; tax

collectors and Gentiles love those who love them. But the Sermon on

the Mount defines the "surpassing" righteousness of those who would

inherit the kingdom of God (5:20).

            Positively, it is clear that Matthew does expect Jesus' followers to

live by the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon spells

out how their righteousness is to go beyond that of others. When, to-

ward the conclusion of the sermon, Jesus insists that those who merely

call him Lord will not enter the kingdom, but only those who actually

do the will of the Father (7:21-23), the exposition of the divine will in

the immediately preceding chapters is surely in view. Similarly, the

sermon ends with a parable which depicts those who heed and obey

Jesus' words as the wise who build "on a rock," whereas those who fail

to heed them, like the foolish who build on sand, do so to their own

ruin (7:24-27). If further confirmation is needed, the Gospel as a whole

concludes with the instructions of the resurrected Jesus by which his

disciples are themselves to make disciples of all nations, to baptize

them, and to teach them "to observe all that I have commanded you"

(28:19-20). The Sermon on the Mount is surely a substantial part of the

teaching that is to be passed on and obeyed.

            (2) Obedience to what Jesus commands is, then, expected (by

both Jesus and Matthew!) of Jesus' followers. Still, just as Jesus con-

veys the message of the kingdom's coming largely in parables, so the

requirements of the kingdom are often expressed in dramatic, poetic

form, where the expectation is rather that disciples will show and act

in accordance with the attitude illustrated in Jesus' command than


            5 This claim by itself is misleading, since Jesus' summons to the kingdom and its

righteousness is directed to all (at least ultimately, as Matt 28:19-20 makes clear; Mat-

thew does see Jesus himself as active at a stage in salvation history when the message

was directed to all Jews). The point here is that the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount

can only be practiced (as we shall see) in the context of a positive response to the proc-

lamation of the kingdom--and not everyone so responds. Hence, though the summons is

addressed to all (Matt 4:17), Jesus' account of the righteousness which is to characterize

his followers (Matthew 5-7) is directed specially to them.


            Stephen Westerholm: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT     49


that they will literally comply with its wording.6 Literalists will miss

the point of Matt 6:6 if they refuse to pray anywhere but in their

rooms. They will be hard put to know how they can keep one hand

from being aware of what the other is doing, or what logs are to be re-

moved from their eyes. And their self-congratulation that at least they

have never thrown pearls to pigs will be premature. Jesus' ethical

teaching is at the opposite extreme from the halachic efforts of

"scribes and Pharisees," where maximum concreteness and compre-

hensiveness in the definition of the divine requirements were sought;

it is not for that reason less serious, as any sensitive reader of the Ser-

mon on the Mount will attest.

            (3) The form taken by Jesus' ethical teaching (point 2 above) cor-

responds to the audience for which it is intended (point 1 above). So-

ciety as we know it needs specific rules. Ideally, such rules act as a

restraint on evil and serve to inculcate virtuous behavior; society is

the better where its laws are good and wise. The risk in a theocracy is

that a body of such laws will be confused with an exhaustive state-

ment of the divine will; that compliance with concrete, practicable

rules will be interpreted as the essence of the righteousness required

by God: hypocrisy (outward compliance without inner devotion), self-

righteousness, pride, and contempt for those less obviously "righ-

teous" are attendant perils.

            In fact, true goodness, though it will express itself in ways no law

would condemn (Gal 5:23), is not the same thing as careful compliance

with rules.7 Labored compliance, while a vast improvement over un-

principled living, falls far short of the spontaneous selflessness and

concern for others, the uncalculating generosity and kindness, the un-

stinted love of God and all his creatures which God desires to flow

from his children. Goodness in this sense is related to joy, thankful-

ness, and appreciativeness--though none of these qualities necessarily

accompany the most fervent strivings for self-discipline and moral

virtue. Such is the goodness of Eden, the fruit of genuine, unselfcon-

scious delight in the goodness of God and his creation. It is, alas, also

a goodness which in the Genesis account was forfeited when human-

kind chose to seek its own path, its own pleasures, and its own good

rather than accept a role in a creation steered by the goodness of God.

The early Christians, convinced that God had found it necessary to in-

tervene in human history in an awesome way, could only conclude

that sinful humanity cannot of its own produce the goodness God


            6 Cf. C. H. Dodd, Gospel and Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951) 46-63.

            7 Cf. J. Knox, The Ethic of Jesus in the Teaching of the Church (New York: Abing-

don, 1961) 103-8; also his moving portrayal of the difference between a servant's and a

son's obedience, 82-86.




desires--not even with the assistance of the divine law. A “tree” must

be “good” before its “fruit” can be acknowledged as such (Matt 7:17).

In Paul's terms, such goodness can only be the product of a life trans-

formed and empowered by the divine Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). In Mat-

thew's terms, it is the righteousness of the “new age” inaugurated by

Jesus, a righteousness springing from a radical reorientation toward

God brought about with the experience of the power and goodness of

his kingdom.

            In short, the Sermon on the Mount does not prescribe in a con-

crete, comprehensive way the behavior expected of God's children,

for such behavior is neither reducible to, nor the straightforward re-

sult of compliance with, a corpus of rules. Rather the Sermon on the

Mount provides illustrations of the kind of attitude and action which

will-and must-characterize those who thrill in what it means to be

children of a benevolent heavenly Father.

            (4) The orientation which, according to the Sermon on the

Mount, is to be displayed in the behavior of Jesus' followers may per-

haps best be summarized in the following two points: absolute, unwa-

vering trust in God's goodness; and absolute, wholehearted, loving

devotion to him. Such a way of life is of course not only audaciously

simple; it is desperately naive and foolishly impractical--unless the

presence of God's rule, care, and goodness are as real and reliable as

Jesus obviously believed they were. Note also that where the essence

of this ethic is seen as love for God and trust in him, it is clear both

that these are indeed essential requirements of God's children (can

people really be living as God's children without showing love and

trust toward him?) and that they cannot be fulfilled by mere compli-

ance with rules. To be sure, many deeds done by a loving, trusting

child can be imitated by outsiders to the family. But just as romantic

love cannot simply be summoned up by a decision of the lover, but

must be a response to the perceived loveliness of the beloved,8 so

childlike love and trust, and the radical expressions of such an orien-

tation demanded by Jesus, can only be a response to the sensed good-

ness and sufficiency of the Father. Herein lies part of the explanation


            8 The parallel may be pursued further. Though at times the lover may act in ways

taught quite spontaneously by "love" itself, and though (ideally, of course) all the lover's

actions are motivated by love, nonetheless cultural expectations, the guidance of experi-

enced friends, and even the counsels of books of etiquette will play their role in shap-

ing (though they can never themselves create) the expressions of love. Similarly, the

expressions of Christian love are "shaped" by the moral expectations of the believing

community, the guidance of its leaders, the counsels of its Scriptures: the spontaneity of

love is by no means the sole determinant of Christian behavior. To judge by the re-

sponse of readers, my Israel's Law and the Church's Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1988) did not sufficiently emphasize this latter aspect.


        Stephen Westerholm: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT    51


why early Christian writers repeatedly feel constrained to insist that

Christian virtue is not the virtue of Christians, but is the work of God

living "in" and "through" them;9 herein lies as well part of the expla-

nation why the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, when detached

from its character as response and from the underlying vision of the

kingdom of God, inevitably appears unachievable.

            (5) But it is only part of the latter explanation, for it remains the

case, as Matthew well knew, that followers of Jesus themselves do not

measure up to the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. After all,

Jesus' disciples are hardly models of goodness and loyalty in the pages

of the first Gospel; and it is not for nothing that a petition for forgive-

ness is included in the disciples' prayer. What Matthew's Gospel does

not tolerate--and it is here at one with all the writings of the NT--is

moral indifference, the complacency which supposes that because one

belongs to a believing community, divine favor is guaranteed regard-

less of one's behavior.10 The Sermon on the Mount is only one of

many solemn warnings against such an attitude.

            (6) Finally, it may be asked whether, since sin undoubtedly re-

mained a reality in the Matthean community, that fact itself discred-

its Matthew's talk of "new age righteousness" and the demand that

followers of Jesus must show a righteousness beyond that of "scribes

and Pharisees"--just as Paul's ethic of the Spirit is sometimes thought

to be discredited by the moral failings of believers in his churches.

Where is the moral superiority which ought to distinguish the "chil-

dren of God"? As often, an illustration best serves to convey the an-

swer which, I believe, Matthew (and Paul) would give.

            A father with carpentry skills decides to build a shed. The task

presents an opportunity to spend some "quality time" with his eight-

year-old twin boys and perhaps to teach them a thing or two about

carpentry. He invites their participation. Both are excited, but, though

Johnny agrees to help, Jimmy decides he would rather build a shed

on his own. They set to work. Tommy, the boys' friend, drops by and

is immediately impressed by Jimmy's activities, hammering and saw-

ing all on his own, with what appears to Tommy to be considerable

skill. Johnny, by comparison, appears positively awkward and quite

unproductive in all he does-bringing a hammer to his dad; driving in

nails with his dad's hand also on the hammer; occasionally attempting

a few strokes on his own, but as often as not having his father pullout


            9 Cf. the fine discussion in D. M. Baillie, God Was in Christ (London: Faber and

Faber, 1948) 114-17.

            10 Cf. Knox, Ethic, 73-75, 87-88, who notes that the reception of forgiveness itself

implies the acknowledgment, not the neglect, of one's obligation.



and straighten the nails he has hit. Tommy can only conclude that

Jimmy is much the better carpenter.

            But Johnny and his dad produce a shed, and a fine one at that (his

father is a good carpenter as well as a devoted dad). Jimmy produces a

mess. The fact is, Jimmy and Johnny are both a decade or more away

from being able to build a shed. Still, Johnny has now had a "part" in

the making of one and, for all his awkwardness and misguided strokes,

learned something about carpentry in the process. Jimmy got nowhere

and learned nothing (beyond, one would hope, his own limitations).

            Doubtless Matthew and Paul saw God's righteousness and good-

ness as lying as far beyond human capacities as the building of a shed

is beyond the skills of an eight-year-old. External observers may be

impressed by any number of virtuous deeds on the part of "Jimmy's"

kin; but, from this perspective, they amount to little. Human virtue

unaided will never take on the character of divine goodness. The lat-

ter can only be produced by "cooperation" with God.  Matthew and

Paul saw followers of Jesus as Johnny's kin, and their assurance that

God's righteousness would result from such "Johnnies'" endeavors

had nothing to do with virtues they perceived in God's little "helpers."

Where a child is eager and willing to help, a competent dad will see

to it that the job gets done.


                        The Moral Vision of the Antitheses


            We turn now to the antitheses themselves. A full-scale exegetical

treatment cannot be provided here. Our more limited purpose will be

to show how each of the antitheses illustrates both the moral vision

and the relation to the Mosaic law sketched above.

            (1) (5:21-26) The law prohibits murder--and even the minimally

virtuous will attempt to comply. That community living requires re-

spect for the life of others is apparent to all. It is equally apparent

that no earthly society can impose sanctions on every outburst of an-

ger or expression of contempt. But the love which God's children

must show their Creator-Father and all his creatures is violated no

less by angry assertions of self-will and scorn than by murder itself.

In poetic, dramatic terms, Jesus shows the moral equivalence (5:22).

            It is sometimes said that Matt 5:22 is a radical interpretation of

the law in 5:21, that Jesus merely draws out the implications already

inherent in the law's prohibition of murder. But, apart from the fact

that there are later antitheses which cannot possibly be construed as

interpretations of the thesis quoted from the law (5:31-32, 33-37, 38-

42,43-48), it is apparent already in 5:21-22 that Jesus' words are to be

understood as an authoritative declaration to contemporary hearers

("But I say to you. . .") in contrast with what was long ago "said to the


            Stephen Westerholm: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT     53


men of old": the very formulation suggests a counterthesis rather than

a mere explanation in v 22.11 To be sure, v 22 does not "set aside" v 21;

murder remains wrong. But Jesus' demand goes beyond what the law

of an earthly society can reasonably condemn to proscribe behavior

incompatible with the goodness required of God's children. The law

is not abolished; it is transcended.

            (2) (5:27-30) The prosperity of earthly societies depends in no

small measure on the preservation of good order and the honoring by

its citizens of all their commitments. Hence societies have every rea-

son to promote fidelity and stability in their families (a consideration

to which modern laws are at times strangely oblivious). The Mosaic

law carries that principle to the point of prohibiting adultery and im-

posing sanctions on transgressors.

            On the other hand, looks of lust are hardly the stuff of legislation.

Still, since they mean the regarding of others solely as opportunities

for one's own gratification, they offend no less than adultery the love

which respects and delights in the "otherness" of others while seek-

ing their good. Again, the goodness of such love transcends without

dismissing the law.

            (3) (5:31-32) Human nature being what it is, promises are not al-

ways kept, peaceful--or even tolerable--coexistence proves not always

possible, marriages fail. The wise law of earthly societies, while anx-

ious to discourage, will nonetheless provide for the orderly dissolu-

tion of marriage.

            But such laws cannot be the standard of God's children. For them,

marriage is not an arrangement of human convenience to be main-

tained only as long as the self-interests of both parties are perceived to

overlap, but a divine institution whose very breath is the commitment

and self-sacrifice of love. Marriage is seen as serving both to provide

for the bearing and training of the next generation in the stable context

of a family whose members are committed to each other, and to woo

human beings from their self-preoccupation and self-love to occupa-

tion with the concerns and good of their spouses and offspring. On the

other hand, divorce represents (in most cases) the rejection of such

other-centeredness for the sordid pursuit of self-interest. Hence, where

marriage is entered, lifelong, loving commitment to one's spouse must

always be the resolve of the children of God--a resolve which tempta-

tions, frustrations, and hardships serve only to stiffen. And though

Christian leaders (beginning at least with Paul12) have justifiably


            11 Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew, 506, 508.

            12 Cf. 1 Cor 7:10-16. Matthew's exceptive clause ("except for unchastity," 5:32) is of

course itself an adaptation of the ideal to a concrete situation. Matt 5:31-32 insists that

remarriage after a divorce involves adultery. This can only mean that, in God's eyes, the




wrestled with the problems of counseling, and applying this ideal, in

less than ideal situations, the moral vision of the Sermon on the Mount

is lost when casuistry and compromise displace the celebration of the

ideal in the proclamation and moral education of the church.

            (4) (5:33-37) As in the case of divorce, oaths represent society's in-

evitable compromises with human sin, the tolerance of the lesser, to

avoid the consequences of the greater, evil. “All men are liars,” but at

least when testifying in court, or making solemn resolutions, they

must be given strong incentives to speak the truth; hence the place for

oaths. Such oaths remain a sorry compromise, both in that they imply

that times and occasions determine the priority of truth, and in that

they represent presumptuous demands of creatures that the Creator

serve as guarantor of their claims. Children of God, whose fundamen-

tal orientation is to please God, will be anxious not to succumb to the

temptation either to protect selfish interests by uttering untruths or to

use their Father's name in any presumptuous way. Again, their be-

havior represents not the setting aside of the law's command, but its


            (5) (5:38-42) The human desire for revenge is moderated in the

law by the principle of fairness: recompense may match, but must not

exceed, the initial injury. Earthly society cannot survive without its in-

stitutions of justice.

            Still, “fair” though it may seem, we all recognize that such a prin-

ciple of justice cannot and should not be applied in all situations. The

rule of “eye-for-an-eye” does not, for example, prevail in the home.

“Normal” parents (may their tribe increase!) make considerable sac-

rifices for their children; often they put up with considerable abuse.

They discipline, to be sure; but the point in their discipline is not that

parents must be allowed "just revenge'" or that they should "stick up

for their rights." They are not even thinking about their "rights'" at

such times. When they function as they should, the good of their chil-

dren is their goal.

            Jesus' point should be clear. The heavenly Father loves his chil-

dren (in this context his "children'" means all his creatures) infinitely

more than human parents love theirs. And, of course, he does not treat

his children on the basis of the "eye-for-an-eye" principle any more


human institution of divorce effects nothing, that the first marriage remains in place,

and, hence, that entrance into a second relationship (even after a divorce) involves un-

faithfulness to the first. The text insists that responsibility for such sins of adultery

rests with the man who initiates the divorce (Jewish law did not permit women to do

so)--with one clear exception (hence the “exceptive clause”): the man is not, of course, to

be considered responsible for his wife's adultery after the divorce when it was her own

adultery prior to the divorce which occasioned the split.

            Stephen Westerholm: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT    55


than they do. God puts up with an incredible amount of abuse from

his children; he pours out his bounty upon them with no thought of

equal return. Followers of Jesus are to do likewise. The principles of

justice in the old age are no adequate guide for the behavior of those

who would inherit the new. When wronged, Jesus' followers insist

neither on their "rights" nor on revenge; nor are they content simply

to bear the abuse. They respond (as Jesus' dramatic pictures in 5:39-

42 illustrate) with positive actions determined by a genuine concern

for the good of those who wrong them. In Paul's terms, they "over-

come evil with good" (Rom 12:21)--just as God overcomes human evil

with his redemptive goodness. Once again, the requirements of the

law are abundantly transcended by the love which is to characterize

God's children.

            (6) (5:43-47) Finally, while normal human love includes an ele-

ment of reciprocity which makes its extension to enemies preposter-

ous, God's goodness is not so circumscribed. Similarly, the love of

those steered by God's love will transcend the limits of human be-

nevolence to include all of God's creatures.

            God's children are thus to reflect the perfection of their Father's

goodness (5:48). That they repeatedly fall short of this standard hardly

means that they can (or that Jesus should) modify the definition of

goodness,13 any more than it follows that God should adjust his char-

acter by bringing it more in line with human limitations and sin!

Goodness remains goodness, God remains God, while his love sustains

his children in their weakness and pardons their failings. But the par-

donable failings do not include, in Matthew's Gospel, indifference to-

ward Jesus' summons to the righteousness of the kingdom. Those who

pay no heed to his words are not recognized by the Matthean Jesus as

his own (7:21-23).




            The law, for Matthew, prescribed righteousness in an age of antic-

ipation. To say that Jesus "sets it aside" is to ignore the positive, divine

role which the Matthean Jesus assigns the law (and the prophets) and

to suggest that righteousness is for him less than a fundamental con-

cern; neither is the case. On the other hand, the Matthean Jesus does

not simply restate the requirements of the law, for its demands do not

adequately correspond to the goodness of God; some of its provisions

are limited by what is legally enforceable, whereas others indulge as-

pects of human sin in an attempt to limit sin's consequences. Jesus'


            13 Again, see the fine discussion in Knox, Ethic, 50-52.




commands transcend the law by prescribing (in a necessarily illustra-

tive, not casuistic or comprehensive way) the goodness of God as the

standard for his children. Theirs is to be the perfect love and trust of

children, responding to the love and goodness of their Father. The re-

peated failings in this life of those who respond are met with the love

and forgiveness of God, offered in Christ. Still, according to the Sermon

on the Mount, response is essential if Jesus' hearers are to enter God's

kingdom: for how can the new age be one of goodness, how can it rise

about the self-seeking viciousness of the present age, unless its mem-

bers are those who have delighted in, submitted to, been transformed

by, and come to reflect the goodness of the heavenly Father? Divine

goodness, the Gospel insists, has spared no cost--not even, beyond all

human comprehension and imagining, the cost of the cross of Jesus--to

include all creation in its sphere. But can divine goodness itself admit

to its realm those who want no part of--divine goodness?



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College; 

4010 Gaston Ave. 

Dallas, TX   75246


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