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The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn


Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 6: The Old and the New


From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 5:17-37.
For the parallel passage see Luke 16:16-18.
To follow up the theme look at Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-36.


Nothing seems much older than the pancakes that were fresh yesterday. The new dress or hat, the new car, the new toy for the children -- all turn old in a few weeks or, at least, a few years. Collectors often specialize in old things, for they will keep getting older; nothing new will get any newer.

Yet human life craves the new. The old gets tiresome; we need renewal, freshening, invigorating. Fortunately, some things are perpetually new. The mysteries of love and hope, of sympathy and joy, are inexhaustible. However long we live with them, they are able to open up new worlds for us, to lead us into undiscovered riches of living.

The Christian faith has its source in the conviction of a new covenant -- the phrase is often translated New Testament -- which God offers mankind. It is the Christian faith that this covenant never grows old or dim or tarnished, because it is a living covenant. It is our belief that when we get bored with all of civilization's hectic attempts to find "something new and different," this age-old covenant remains fresh. Let us see why.

The Story of the Covenants

Jesus was talking to a group of people who were confident that they lived in a covenant-relationship with God. In the ancient days at Mount Sinai, God said Moses: "I have made a covenant with you and with Israel" (Exod. 34:27). The words of the covenant were preserved in the Ten Commandments. Through the centuries, when the Israelites sinned, the prophets called on the people to be faithful to their covenant. Everyone who heard Jesus knew of that covenant.

Many who heard him remembered also that the great prophet Jeremiah had foretold the days of a new covenant — written, this time, not on tablets of stone but upon the hearts of the people. This was to be a covenant of divine forgiveness. (See Jeremiah 31:31-34.)

Now, in a land already stirred by the fiery John the Baptist, Jesus appeared. Boldly he confronted the sacred tradition and said repeatedly: "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say. . . ." This rash effrontery was more than some conscientiously could stand; their whole sense of what was sacred made them enemies of this bold impostor -- as he seemed to them. But others recognized in him God's ambassador, bringing the promised new covenant.

Thus the Christian church has seen it through the ages. At the service of Holy Communion we read again the words of institution, "This is my blood of the covenant" (Matt. 26:28). The Christian faith is that in Christ the hope of the centuries was realized: the new covenant was established.

But the Lord of the new covenant did not deride the old covenant. Some Christians in the early centuries of the church did. They wanted to do away with the Old Testament, and reject the God of the Jews. The church, however, declared their views heretical -- for Jesus had said that he came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. Notice the strong wording of Matthew 5:17-20, especially verse 18. Iota refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The dot is an ornamental mark that the scribes used in writing. Although we know that Jesus was less concerned with minute details of the Law than with man's basic relation to God, he is here saying: If you truly understand what God asks in the Law, you will see that none of it (not an iota or dot) is lost in my teaching.

Yet Jesus' method was not to elaborate, develop, and bring up to date the Law by applying it to the many details of first-century Palestinian life. That was the method of the conscientious Pharisees. Jesus rather went to the heart of the Law, extracted its divinely-given meaning from the surrounding web of words and customs, and proclaimed the will of God in its purity. But to those who concentrated on the externals, Jesus appeared to be wrecking the most sacred of religious institutions.

What Is New in Jesus' Teaching?

Sometimes Jesus startled his listeners with a statement so new that they were shocked by it. More

often his ideas were not new, at least not in the sense that no one had ever thought of them before. Most of the sentences in the Sermon on the Mount have their parallels in the Old Testament or in the rabbinic writings of Jesus' time.

Sometimes we say that the newness of Jesus lies in his personality -- in his powerful character which inspired men to faithful loyalty, in the vigor that shook them out of their ruts, in the holiness before which they felt ashamed, in the mercy that brought love into the lives of sinners. Sometimes we find his newness in the penetrating discrimination by which he evaluates old teachings, knows which to accept and which to reject, puts first things first, and subordinates what is secondary.

These ideas are true enough, but they do not quite get to the core of the matter. For Jesus' emphasis was not on his own personality or on a new and better law. His central message -- is we have seen -- was the gospel of the kingdom of God. It is this kingdom, which fulfills the best in the Law, which takes men's deepest yearnings and makes them deeper yet before it satisfies them. So the newness of Jesus is the power of the king dom of God to make us new. We understand his sayings when we grasp them as expressions of that power.

So one of our foremost New Testament scholars writes:

"God demands more than that man should perform some particular commandments; he demands that man become a new being, living under the eyes of God and in the consciousness of his will. . . For Christ has brought with him not the revelation of a new law but the message of the kingdom. Its purpose is to transform men, and a transformed humanity will be able to do more than men did under the government of the old Law. Man will recognize the will of God in every situation, even if the commandments of the Bible do not cover this situation." (The Sermon on the Mount by Martin Dibelius, pp. 77-78. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940. Used by permission.)

When we understand this we can see why the message of Christ is as new in the twentieth century as it was in the first, and why it fulfills the highest ethics of our world as truly and as radically as it fulfills the ancient Jewish Law.

The Inwardness of Jesus' Ethic

Today we, like some of the Pharisees, are likely to find the causes of our troubles in the externals of life. Propagandists tell us that we can solve our problems by buying a new product, by getting (or getting rid of) a "new deal" in government, by new techniques of industry or of psychology. As T. S. Eliot says:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
(From "The Rock," reprinted from Collected Poems 1909-1935 by T. S. Eliot. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1936. Used by permission)

Of course, the Christian faith does not discourage our attempts to deal with the externals of life. But it tells us that no externals will take the place of Christ's message to the inmost self. His message, in one example after another, moves from the law governing actions to the inner motive.

1. From murder to hatred (see Matthew 5:21-26). Laws can prescribe punishment for murder. But no government can outlaw anger and animosity. Only the kingdom of God can do that. For Jesus the seething resentment is as bad as the act that grows out of it. Jesus does not, of course, condemn honest and deeply felt opposition to wrong. He is talking of the kind of anger that is an expression of envy or jealously and that takes satisfaction in the bad fortunes of another. Modern psychological discoveries throw an interesting light on the Christian teaching here, as they show how repressed hostilities can create in us a hell on earth. The answer obviously is not in allowing all hostilities to erupt -- not in letting anger become murder. What we need is inner healing. So Jesus "fulfills" one of the Ten Commandments -- one article of the Old Covenant.

Verses 25-26 here present some problems of detail. Luke puts these verses in a different context (12:57-59). In Matthew they might be merely prudential advice. Actually they are a parable about man's relation to God. Every man is approaching God's judgment seat. We had better approach in humility and repentance, seeking God's mercy.

(2) From adultery to lust (see Matthew 5:27-32). Again Jesus moves from the overt act which a court of law might pass judgment on, to the inner disposition. If a man covets his neighbor's wife (in the words of the Ten Commandments), he "has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Once more recent psychology, showing the disastrous effects of repression, bears out what Jesus is saying; and once more the answer is not the discarding of all restraints upon conduct, but an inner transformation -- a "fulfillment" of the Law.

Verses 29-30 show the seriousness of sin. Some religions actually endorse self-mutilation, and in rare cases Christians have taken these verses literally. However there is no evidence that those who knew Jesus ever understood him in this way. The complete paragraph makes the point clear. If inward lust is the problem, literal loss of a hand or eye will do no good. Jesus means, seriously, that an unhealthy personality is worse than loss of limbs.

NOTE: We cannot here make a study of Jesus' whole teaching on the family, though that would be richly rewarding. We should notice two things in passing. First, Jesus is not condemning sexual desire or sexual union as such. Jesus' teaching on marriage (see Mark 10:6-9) places the highest value On marital union. Second, his teaching on divorce allows no room for self-righteous criticism of divorced persons. Jesus teaches the sanctity and permanence of marriage so as to bring under judgment all the frivolity of our culture. But those who use his words (verse 32) to condemn others find his words (verse 28) convicting themselves of the same guilt.

(3) From perjury to dishonesty (see Matthew 5:33-37). American law does not convict a man of simple dishonesty -- or who would be out of prison? It defines the crime of perjury, in which one tells a falsehood under the technical conditions of a prescribed oath. So it was with Jewish law. Detailed prescriptions marked the difference between oaths that were binding and those that were not (Matthew 23:1622). Jesus swept aside all this. For a man of integrity a simple "yes" is adequate -- better than the most complicated oath of a hypocrite. Some Christian groups to this day take Jesus literally and refuse to take oaths, but most Christians think he was emphasizing the need for a genuine trustworthiness that will make unnecessary all the intricate legal guarantees.

A Covenant of Grace

In all this we see Jesus' insistence, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and

Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). The Pharisees were the models of conscientiousness. Aiming to be faithful to God and his covenant, they guarded themselves against many temptation by carefully seeking to live up to the Law. Jesus demands so much less -- and yet so much more. The meticulous attention detail can go by the way, if only the essential thing is present the fulfillment of the Law in the spirit of the kingdom of God

Augustine understood this when in the fifth century a convert asked him for a listing of his ethical obligations as a Christian. Augustine's answer cut to the heart of the problem in a short sentence: "Love -- and do as you please." The one word includes everything. For if we truly love, what we please will please God.

The answer is simple, but not easy. For, as we study the Sermon on the Mount, we realize that there is no human love of such purity as to meet God's demand. We try all sorts ways to soften these words of Jesus.

For example, when Jesus says, "every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment," we say that is asking too much. How can we make it easier? In ancient times someone slipped into the sentence an extra two words, without cause. Some of our manuscripts of the New Testament include that insertion. Whoever got that idea reasoned thus: to be angry without cause is the sin; anger with just cause is all right. But that is a dodge. We are never angry without what we can pretend is a cause. But Jesus asks for complete love. He makes no concessions to our weakness.

We are driven to ask, as the disciples did on a different occasion, "Then who can be saved?" The answer to us, as to them, is: "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:2627). We are saved by God's mercy, not by our goodness. Christianity is a gospel, not a law. The new covenant is a covenant of grace.

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