Today’s Sunday message comes from a closing section of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus quotes from the Old Testament Jewish law and then weaves it into a gospel tour de force. Be advised that the issues discussed are not for the squeamish!
The notable theme of conciliation toward enemies distinguishes Matthew 5: 38-48. Jesus refers to Exodus 21:23-24, the “eye for an eye” section known as the law of retribution. Jesus flatly contradicts the law of retribution by saying that people should turn the other cheek and not resist the evildoer (Matthew 5:39). Jesus also speaks about giving freely to those who ask, loving enemies, and being positive toward adversaries.
It all sounds good until we try to reconcile Jesus’ pledge to not destroy the law (Matthew 5:17) with his masterwork interpretations. It is not surprising that both ancient and contemporary critics cite Jesus’ rhetorical spin of God’s law as changing the old view so much as to create something entirely different. Other observers perceive Jesus’ interpretations as extensions or corrections to the divine law, thereby overhauling perspectives that were as errant as they were popular. Still others are not bothered at all by real or apparent contradictions between Jesus and the Old Testament because they do not wish to perceive—let along acknowledge—inconvenient disparities within holy writ.
It is difficult, to say the least, when attempting to take the Old Testament law and create an elegant match with Jesus’ statements in the New Testament. Perhaps Jesus’ attempt at reconciling ancient Jewish tradition with his own can be attributed to Jesus giving the “true” meaning behind the [erroneous or incomplete] literal Old Testament words. Jesus’ ancient, contemporary, and modern critics suggest that Jesus is taking license with what was commonly understood as God’s immutable Old Testament law, that Jesus is creating his own new religion by weaving new meanings from older material (not that there’s anything wrong with that they may insist).
It is undeniably obvious that Jesus’ statements quoted in the Bible vary significantly from the Old Testament words, so much so that fair-minded observers are invited to conclude that either Jesus or the Old Testament is wrong (perhaps both!). There may be a conciliatory position between these two extreme views, and perhaps in this way we may gravitate toward a more pleasant option. It seems difficult for most Christians to challenge prevailing biblical interpretations. This may account for why there have been voluminous attempts to take Jesus seriously while also giving a wink and a nod toward Old Testament authority.
Another approach in this drama of competing views is to insist that it is a fool’s errand to try and reconcile Jesus’ message with Old Testament theology. In response to this, much chatter rises from the supposed guardians of orthodoxy, those who seem to ignore the Truth in trying to preserve an anesthetizing sentiment, one that recoils from any threats to whatever is an era’s prevailing theology/ideology. And if Jesus’ interpretation of the Jewish law is the only correct one, then that begs the question of how and when the Old Testament law became corrupted (perhaps it was never right in the first place and never came from God anyway).
We may agree with Jesus’ [re]interpretation of the Old Testament law, and we certainly applaud his radical revealing of a new meaning behind the law. Jesus’ message is liberating as he provides a broader theological context, a framework emphasizing grace, mercy, peace—all in line with his unequalled love emphasis. Regardless of what happens to the Old Testament, it seems that Jesus’ gospel of love should be the power guiding our lives. We don’t like to think that we (or necessarily Jesus) are creating a new version of things as much as we might explain how we are simply correcting misinterpretations or revealing hidden meanings.
Whereas Jesus exercised freedom to reinterpret Old Testament law, few of us seem inclined to do the same. Or, do we? Examine how people justify their beliefs and practices despite what Jesus said about loving enemies and blessing those who curse you. Even a cursory view of history reveals how selective we are in what we pay attention to. When pressed to account for our selective justifications we can recoil in defensive posture and attack critics who rightly call attention to our blatant hypocrisies.
Here we are, challenged by Jesus’ view of the law which, in its all-consuming nature, ironically seems to ask more of us than the Old Testament law that it displaces. Jesus’ view of our obligations to love one another demands our all, and puts our so-called enemies not on a hit-list but as deserving of tender mercy. What do you think? Is it easier for you to destroy your enemies (Old Testament) or to embrace them (New Testament)? Consider the tendency to pick and choose how we respond to someone, based on ether a harsh Old Testament approach or in Jesus’ way of tender mercy and love. My prayer is that we would continue to strive toward living the love we know God wants from us. The Christian faith is not easy, but God is with us every step of the way.