Let the Scriptures Speak

Living the Law

“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that
of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Gospel)

With this Sunday's Gospel reading, we move into the part of the Sermon on the Mount that scholars call the six antitheses. The label intends to highlight the fact that here, six times in a row, the words of Jesus follow a pattern that goes, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you … ” Here we meet Jesus asserting an authority even greater than that of Moses. In our awe, we can miss the bite and challenge of Jesus’ words.

As an ear-opening exercise, let's listen carefully to what Jesus says in the antithesis about murder. He begins by citing the commandment and its consequence: whoever kills will be liable to judgment. “Judgment” here is not punishment after death but a reference to the juridical process of a trial. The law says, “Kill and you shall be tried for it.” Jesus then asserts, “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to the same judgment.”

At this point the rational listener is supposed to say, “Wait a minute! You can't litigate about anger. There's no deed, no action to take to court.” Jesus' implied answer is, “Right. Don't think you are obeying the Torah on murder just because you haven't killed. I am calling you to something that the law can't reach, the disposition of your heart. If you want to forestall violence, deal with the anger in your heart.”

If we catch the point of this first example, the meaning of the rest of the verse falls into place. And whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, “You fool,” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. “Raqa” is an insult term like our “you fool,” and already we are standing before the Jerusalem Supreme Court! “You fool” is still in the realm of trash talk, not violent action, and now the consequence has escalated to damnation. This is parody. Jesus is imitating the language of legalistic calibration matching punishment to crime, all to the same point: “I am challenging you to a purity of heart that the calculus of the law cannot reach. So don't be complacent that you haven't killed yet.”

In short, Jesus does not make new laws; for living the law, he brings a new vision and a new help—a refreshed covenant relationship with God.

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.

 

**From Saint Louis University

 

Kristin Clauson