Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.
‘For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
‘You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court; if a man calls his brother “Fool” he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.
‘You have learnt how it was said: You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.
‘It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not break your oath, but must fulfil your oaths to the Lord. But I say this to you: do not swear at all, either by heaven, since that is God’s throne; or by the earth, since that is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, since that is the city of the great king. Do not swear by your own head either, since you cannot turn a single hair white or black. All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’
Sometimes we hear a nostalgia expressed for the days when our faith was expressed largely through the medium of laws. People seemed to find the existence of these moral markers reassuring and they could measure their piety by counting the number of exercises completed. The letter of the law was kept in great detail but sometimes the spirit of the same law was bypassed or ignored. As a people, we have a facility for circumventing laws, which we learned perhaps from our days of living under unjust laws.
The law has an important function and like the cane which trains and strengthens a growing plant, it guides and points us in the right direction. Law protects us from tyranny and assures us some protection against forces larger than ourselves. When the laws surrounding Holy Communion were relaxed, for example, the profound respect for the sacrament which they fostered seemed to fall flat on its face.
In this concluding part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is explaining that he upholds the earlier law, the Ten Commandments. Using the three examples of anger, lust and deceitfulness, he shows that law goes beyond the letter that is carved in stone. Sin comes from the heart, not from the dead letter of law. Jesus explains that the law he has taught and the example he has given are things of the heart. It is possible to keep the law and do so meticulously but to do this for the wrong reason. ‘The greatest treason’, wrote Saint Thomas More, ‘is to do the right thing for the wrong reason’.
God knows the thoughts and motivations of our hearts and it is these
by which we shall be judged. The law of the Sermon on the Mount is a law for a people who have moved beyond the shallow virtue of the Pharisees. It is a law which fulfills and completes the written code because it adds the necessity of purity of heart and life and right intention. It is a law which despises the outward show and the self aggrandisement and the legal gymnastics of the Pharisees. What is at stake here is eternal life, entry into the kingdom of God, and the possibility that we may not perish but may have eternal life.
Jesus has created nothing short of a spiritual revolution here by moving religious observance and spirituality from outward practice to inner conviction. It is truly a revolution from the heart.