Jesus’ Interpretation of the Law

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount spend a fair amount of time interpreting the Ten Commandments and other matters of the Law in the light of not what people ought not do, but what they had ought to have done. He didn’t quote them exactly. He didn’t take them literally in the plain sense reading of the Law. Rather, he shows his mastery of the law by pointing out that the letter of the law is one thing and the spirit of the law is another.

OT “You shall not murder.”
NT “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement; Anyone who holds a brother or sister in contempt is answerable for it. Anyone who says “You fool!” will be in danger of going to Hell.”

OT “You shall not commit adultery.”
NT “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.”

OT “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.”
NT “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

OT “Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made.”
NT “Do not swear an oath at all; all you need to say is simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

OT “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
NT “Do not resist an evil person. Give to the one who asks you, do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

OT “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
NT “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Jesus was answering the moral failures that the OT Law didn’t keep in check. A good example are Jesus’ words on divorce. We might read it today and think “Jesus was really conservative about that, but if she says that divorce = adultery, then we had better preach against it.” But when you look at his interactions with the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, he never failed to show them grace when everyone else was showing them cruelty. It is a lack of cultural context that continues to confuse us to this day.

About the time that Jesus’ ministry was taking place, it was already an established teaching from the Pharisees that a man divorcing his wife was compulsory after ten years of childlessness. It was also not uncommon for marriages to take place so that husbands could collect the dowry only to divorce his wife at some point and keep the dowry. Men could divorce women for whatever reason or no reason at all. Women were never permitted to divorce men. Because a certificate was proof that a marriage had ended, any husband who failed to give his ex-wife a certificate could put her out of the house but prevent her from marrying anyone else.

If Jesus’ ministry was taking place here and now, he would answer our moral failing based off of our law and reinterpret them for us to show us how we ought to live. Being a Christian is not about keeping the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount to the letter, but living it’s principles by fulfilling the spirit of the law – by being people who make the most of every opportunity to be good to the people we meet. Just as Jesus healed, cured, blessed, visited, and crossed barriers to reach people – so should we.

Jesus summed up all of the Law and the Prophets in just two commandments: “Love God with all your heart all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”
We have to get both right. There are no exceptions. Our neighbors aren’t just fellow Christians that belong in our denomination that agree with us on all matters of theology. Think about the Good Samaritan: the qualifier ‘good’ shows how different this samaritan was from the rest. It was well understood that they were rivals and enemies of the Jewish nation. Each clinging to their own version of the Torah, their own temple, their own mountain, and their own understanding of God. So deep was this mistrust, that Jews oftened added days to their journey to travel around Samaria rather than travel through it. They had good reason, Josephus mentions that even in the New Testament era it was not uncommon for tensions to flare up and confrontations to break out between Jews and Samaritans. Perhaps a modern parallel might be ‘The Parable of the Good Palestinian’. We are supposed to love our rivals and enemies as if they were just like us. Like the Good Samaritan, it requires compassion. It sets us apart and makes us good people not for following the rules, but for knowing when to bend them to help the helpless and heal the hurting.

The biggest moral failing of all is not in keeping the letter of the law, but failing to keep it’s spirit, being loving to everyone without exception, and only then will we be able to love God as we should. If we cannot love each other, then odds are we would also have a problem loving God.