‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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).
After insisting that his coming is to fulfill rather than abolish the ‘law and prophets’, Jesus moves to talk specifics.
Each paragraph above begins by pointing back: ‘You have heard that it was said…’. These commands against murder, adultery, divorce, and false testimony were familiar to all Jews.
But Jesus insists there is more to say.
Under the command: “You shall not murder”, Jesus wants to talk of the eternal dangers inherent in hatred, anger, and insult. He goes on – for Jesus is not simplistic or naive – to call for a repairing of human relationships. This, shockingly, is to be done before any repairing of one’s relationship with God: ‘…first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.’
Similarly, in addressing adultery, Jesus points to the ‘heart’, the ‘eye’, and the ‘hand’. The radical approach of tearing and cutting are certainly hyperbole (indeed, I know of no follower of Jesus who has taken this literally!). Hidden, however, within Jesus’ instruction is a decisive, uncompromising approach to that which draws us from God’s call to purity. Even Moses’ ‘certificate of divorce’ is recognised as a poor and shallow excuse for ‘adultery’.
Finally, Jesus targets the vow system that made certain promises obligatory and others optional. In asking for the abolishment of any such swearing, Jesus settles for an honesty of heart: ‘…let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”. It is not a call to avoid fulfilling what we say, but to recognise the importance of value of all we say.
It would seem from all this that even God’s good rules are vulnerable to our twisting and contorting manipulation.
Jesus is calling for a fulfilling, not an emptying, of the law. It is an articulation of what was hoped for from the very beginning: that the the words of God would be absorbed by the heart.