Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Torah and Prophets

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July 9, 2012 by jmar198013

[5.17-20: Continuity with Moses and the Prophets] “Don’t ever get it in your heads that I’ve come to deconstruct Moses or the Prophets. I don’t intend to deconstruct the Scriptures—I’m here to embody them. Rest assured that as long as the heavens and the earth stand not a single detail of the Torah—no matter how insignificant it seems—will become irrelevant, until all of God’s promises become reality. So whoever breaks even the most seemingly insignificant of these commands, and teaches others that the commands are irrelevant, will be considered irrelevant in God’s empire. But whoever does them and teaches them will be considered a leading citizen in God’s empire. And I promise you this: if you don’t conduct yourselves any better than the religious fundamentalists and political pundits around here, you’ll never make it in God’s empire.”

This passage establishes a fundamental continuity between the church and the history of God’s people, Israel. Jesus affirms the Torah, as interpreted by the prophets. It is obvious that some of Jesus’ detractors must have accused him of ignoring or contradicting the Torah. This is why he must state so emphatically at the outset of his ministry that he does not intend to abrogate the Torah or the prophets, but to explain them by means of his teachings and deeds. The ministry of Jesus will thus embody the Torah and prophets, and indeed, the sweep of the history of God’s people. For the form of Jesus’ life is always what God intended.

Much ink has been spilt trying to parse out precisely what Jesus meant by all of this. Which parts of the Torah are retained? Which are set aside? Which are reinterpreted? What is meant, exactly, by Jesus’ explaining that none of the Torah will be set aside until all is accomplished? I don’t know that these are completely unfruitful discussions, but I also don’t believe that these are the most constructive questions to be asking. All we need to understand is that Jesus is explaining that the church is a people rooted in a very particular history–God’s revelation of himself to Israel through Moses and the prophets. The church must see itself in direct continuity with that revelation. It is not antinomian or ahistorical, certainly not anti-Semitic. The church–especially those fellowships most beholden to the Reformation–tends to draw a sharp distinction between constructs of law and grace (Calvinists and Anabaptists notwithstanding). But Jesus’ words here will just not allow for that.

Once we recognize that Jesus argues for a fundamental continuity between the Gospel and the Torah, it actually helps us appreciate the Torah more. Especially in light of Jesus’ interpretations of the Torah that immediately follow (Matt. 5.21-48). So Jesus’ words on adultery and divorce (Matt. 5.27-32) shed light on Moses’ words on divorce in Deut. 24, and we recall that, far from granting permission for easy divorce, Moses meant to protect women. Likewise, Jesus’ commentary on “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Matt. 5.38-42) remind us that, far from bloodthirsty vengeance, Moses was attempting to limit violent retaliation (by putting an end to blood feuds and legislating that you could not kill someone for wounding you). This means that the church must be as concerned with protecting women from exploitation as it is with preserving marriage, and intent on nonviolent solutions to conflict as it is on the preservation of rights. The Sermon on the Mount, far from supplanting the Torah and prophets, assists us in understanding them aright.

Jesus says that the righteousness of his disciples must transcend that of the scribes and Pharisees (I paraphrase it religious fundamentalists and political pundits). There is a deep meaning to this, crucial to the task of the church in any age, if we know what the scribes and Pharisees did with Torah, and we know how to apply this to ourselves. One blatant instance is the establishment of the prosboul in defiance of the Sabbath year regulations of the Torah. In the seventh year, all debts were to be forgiven. Yet the scribes and Pharisees had invented the prosboul to circumvent the Sabbath’s release of debts. The prosboul was an official arm of the Sanhedrin that would collect for the creditor. The conceit was, since the Torah stipulated that the creditor himself could not collect the debt, the prosboul would instead. It was practices like this–which perhaps kept to the letter of Torah, but not its spirit, and would hardly have been countenanced by either Moses or the prophets–that provoked Jesus into chiding the religious elite for “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” The prosboul of the Pharasaic scribes actually abrogated God’s Torah. The ongoing task of the church is to live faithful to God’s word, rather than initiate institutions such as the prosboul to claim immunity from it. This is the convicting word that flows from this passage to the church today.

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3 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Torah and Prophets

  1. […] Again, keep in mind that Paul has just been speaking to a person who is trying to make Gentiles righteous by teaching them the law (Rom. 2.17-3.9). Their power to agitate the church is scaring Gentiles into believing they are on the outs with God unless they become orthopracticing Jewish proselytes. It is a drawing of a hegemonic line of privilege around salvation. That is what Paul is countering. If he can convince the Gentile Christians, and hopefully their would-be Jewish Christian teachers, that they are saved by God’s righteousness revealed in Christ’s faithfulness, then the sting of the law-teacher’s agitation loses its power. Salvation and righteousness are not to be found in keeping the law. Rather, they are to be found in participating in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who is himself the embodiment of the law and the prophets (cf. Matt. 5.17-20). […]

  2. […] is not a bad idea to read Rom. 3.21-31–especially the bookending verses 21, 31–in concert with Matthew 5.17-20. I have made the following observations concerning that […]

  3. […] is not a bad idea to read Rom. 3.21-31–especially the bookending verses 21, 31–in concert with Matthew 5.17-20. I have made the following observations concerning that […]

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