I Treasure Your Word in My Heart: Biblical Background on the Maxims
Within the covenant relationship which is foundational to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the voice that calls by name is also the voice that gives aids for remaining in joyful relationship with God and neighbor. The maxims are one such aid, and their tablet shape mirrors the sign of the covenant: the Law.
Part One of this paper looks at the essential elements of the Law as background for greater appreciation of the maxims as part of the long history of covenantal life.
Part Two looks at the maxims within the context of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, for the Matthean Jesus is primarily a teacher of Law.
by Pam Moore
Pam Moore is the Director of Children’s Formation at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL. In addition to being a catechist, formation leader and writer, Pam offers atrium-based family events at the beginning of each liturgical season. She is currently expanding the CGS to adult formation through teaching, preaching and hosting retreats. She received her Masters in Theological Studies from Seabury Western Theological Seminary.
Biblical Background on the Maxims
In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd we say that the younger child’s inner plea is “Help me come closer to God myself.” But what is the inner cry of the older child? What prayer lies beneath the new capacities for social interactions, moral awareness, intellectual reasoning, and absorption of cultural norms? What prayer undergirds the six- to-twelve-year-old child’s fascination with the parable of the True Vine?
It occurs to me that the older child’s prayer may be that of the psalmist: “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). This is not all that different from the younger child’s plea. The foundation is still enjoyment of a relationship, of the announcement of the covenant, of being sheep of the Good Shepherd and branches on the True Vine. It expresses a desire to be helped to come closer to God. The difference lies in the emerging awareness of a discrepancy between God’s love and faithfulness and one’s own love and faithfulness. Hence, the clause: “so that I may not sin against you.” The initial quality of enjoyment expands as the child matures to include a conscious awareness of the importance of “remaining“ steeped in the divine precepts “because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jonn 15:5). The relationship of love formed in early childhood continues to direct the child toward God and toward giving one’s life over to the Lord through constant immersion in the divine Word. A six-year-old expressed it this way: In large print he wrote, “I am geesus. I am the lord.” Then at the top of the page he printed, “I will give my sol and lif to the lord.”
How striking it is to see the parallel between this child’s proclamation of self-dedication and Israel’s own commitment to the covenant. After Yahweh announces: “I will take you as my people and I will be your God….I am the Lord” (Exod. 6:7,8), Israel responds with total self-dedication: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exod. 19:8).
The voice that calls by name is also the voice that gives aids for remaining in relationship. One aid is the maxims. These are concise directives given by Jesus regarding love of God and neighbor such as: “Love your enemies”, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” and “I do not say forgive seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The staccato format of the maxims can make them appear as external mandates for proper behavior, however, a closer look at their position within Jesus’ inaugural speech, the Sermon on the Mount, reveals their covenantal heritage. The maxims then are primarily tools and treasures for remaining in that enduring relationship of love of God and neighbor.
Since they are such treasures, in the atrium the maxims are written in beautiful calligraphy on tablet-shaped pieces of wood and housed in an equally elegant cabinet with tablet-shaped doors. The tablet shape mirrors the Law, which also was conceived as a treasure, a gift and a tool for remaining in relationship with the Holy One of Israel as well as keeping one in right relationship with neighbor, implementing justice and mercy at all times.
While the maxims can be found in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, here I focus only on the gospel of Matthew because Matthew’s Jesus is primarily a teacher of the Law and concerned with proper understanding of it. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus makes his dedication to the Law clear: “Do not think that I have come n to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The maxims follow this explicit announcement of the enduring significance of the Law. However, before attending to the maxims‘ place within the Sermon on the Mount, a look at some of the primary characteristics of Jewish Law is in order so that a deeper appreciation of both the Law and maxims might be gleaned.
The Law as a Sign of the Covenant
Above all else, the Law is the sign of the covenant; that is, the sign of a particular way of living in relationship to God. Therefore, to speak of the Law is to speak of the covenant. It is important to note that Torah actually means teaching, not Law. What we have come to call the Law is really the teaching of a way of life. For Israel, the Law or Torah is the outward sign and continual reminder of Yahweh’s enduring presence and specified the details of the covenant relationship.
The making of covenants was a common practice in ancient times. In fact, one of the primary sources of information about ancient peoples is the documentation of covenants between various peoples. Typically, covenants were made between a great and powerful king and an inferior people for the latter’s protection and the former’s continued domination. It was a way of life and the way relationships were secured, understood and implemented in ancient times.
With regard to Israel, the covenant speaks quite clearly of the sovereignty of God and the divine protection enjoyed by this particular people. However, as common as covenants were “the concept of a covenant between God and humankind is a unique reality in the history of religions” (Cavaletti, History’s Golden Thread, 73). In fact, Cavalletti argues that the word covenant is a bit misleading. She believes testament is a better term because it points to the unequal nature of the relationship between God and humankind. More importantly, it points to the fact that Israel enjoys God’s favor purely out of God’s goodness and not as a result of its own merit. She explains further: “In our use of the word, covenant indicates a free choice on God’s part, as well as a free choice on the part of human beings, who accept the gift of God” (ibid., 73).
Historically, covenants had several components. They began with an oral agreement and, once writing was developed, included a written document as well. They outlined specific consequences for adherence to and violation of the agreement. These were known as the blessings and the curses of the covenant. A covenant usually gave stipulations for the periodic public reading of the covenant as a reminder for all involved, but especially to keep the inferior party loyal. A ritual act of some sort sealed the covenant. Often this involved the sacrifice of animals. Anyone who broke the covenant would endure the same fate as the animals. In other words, the covenant was binding unto death. Once the document was drawn up and sealed with the ritual act, it was placed in a sacred place like a temple. In the covenant between God and Israel the various components might be outlined as follows:
“I will take you as my people; and I will be your God. (Exod. 6:7)
The Decalogue (Exod. 20)
Blessings and Curses
“See I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God….and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 11:26-28)
After sacrificing an animal the blood is poured on the altar. (Lev. 1)
Period of Public Reading
Not specified, but there are indications of this and the prophets gave constant reminders.
The ark of the covenant and later the tabernacle. (Exod. 25:7-22)
The Hebrew Scriptures report a series of covenants, showing that covenant was the major metaphor used to describe the relationship between God and Israel, but the one made with Moses on Mount Sinai remains the most significant. As mentioned above, to speak of the Law is to speak of the covenant because “all the laws in the Pentateuch appear within the covenant framework” (Wenham 7).
The Law As An Act of Love
In Deuteronomy we hear the reason God makes the covenant with Israel: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you” (Deut. 7:7-8). God chose to make a covenant with Israel based only on hesed or steadfast love. So the covenant and by extension the law are given to Israel out of love. Later we will see how hesed or steadfast love is the response God expects from Israel in the form of faithfulness, righteousness and justice.
The Law As Gift
Since this covenant, which God makes with Israel, is made out of love for this people, the Law is viewed as a gift and a sign of favor. While grace as we know it was a foreign idea in Old Testament; “the Law is a gracious gift of God” (Wenham 7) for “divine grace/gift precedes and becomes the foundation for human obedience to the divine will, a will that is revealed most clearly in the experience of grace itself and not as some fixed code of social and legal norm” (Mendenhall, 1191). The Law served to confirm the election of Israel as the chosen people of God; therefore, following the Law was viewed not as a burden but as a privilege and honor. To live under the rule and protection of the sovereign God meant endless blessing: “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your gourd and the fruit of your livestock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you go out” (Deut. 28:3-6).
The Law Requires a Response
Every covenant is a dynamic relationship, requiring specific responses and involving a continual cycle of giving and receiving by both parties. Indeed, “a relationship is a true relationship, a covenant a true covenant when both parties contribute to it” (Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child Six to Twelve Years Old, 9). God initiated the relationship by delivering Israel out of the house of slavery in Egypt and Israel in return is expected to obey all the commands of God. The Ten Commandments are especially clear about this dynamic. (Exod. 20:2-17). Throughout its history, Israel is reminded of the expectation to covenant loyalty: “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deut. 12:28). Clearly, “laws are more than an abstract system of morality. They are the personal demands of the sovereign, personal God and his subject people” (Wenham, 9).
Covenants stipulated very specifically the terms of the agreement. The covenant Yahweh makes with Israel is no different. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with the explicit stipulation: If you are faithful and obey all that the Lord has commanded, you will enjoy many blessings, but if you do not then you will be cursed. However, even though there seems to be a definite cause and effect relationship with regard to human beings’ response to the Law, caution must be given in thinking that human beings can manipulate or earn God’s favor or disfavor. Instead, the expectation is the return of love for love.
If what we have come to call the Law is given in love, then the automatic response is obedience to it because obedience reveals a full embrace of the gift. It shows the receiver’s desire to be like the giver. Duty, obedience, and responsibility, then, are not separate requirements but intimately linked to the initial response of praise and thanksgiving. They are not the reason that the gift was given, but are the result of it.
The Law Calls Forth Righteousness and Justice
The ultimate response to the Law required by God is righteousness and justice. From the beginning, Israel is reminded: “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords….who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them with food and clothing” (Deut. 10: 17-18). In its hymns Israel proclaims: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Ps. 89:14). In fact, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). The Giver of the gift of the covenant fully expects that the receivers of steadfast love will readily respond in similar fashion. Therefore the prophets constantly raise the call to “remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes: cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow“ (Isa. 1:16-17). In short, “let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an every-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). The true servant of the Lord is one who “brings forth justice to the nations” and “establishes justice in the earth” (Isa. 42:1,3). As a result, Israel becomes “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6) and its kings are attributed with possessing the “wisdom of God” by the way they “execute justice” (I Kings 3:28, 2 Sam. 8:15).
There is probably no other theme that touches every single book of the Bible as does the theme of justice. Israel’s unfaithfulness is directly connected to the expectation that theirs would be a just society. So great is this transgression of negligence toward one’s neighbor that “the Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwelling of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers” (Lam. 2:2). Yet even in judgment immense divine mercy is exposed as Yahweh reconsiders the covenantal love: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.” (Jer. 31:20).
The Law Leads to Holiness
The gift of the covenant with its subsequent call to implementing divine justice sets Israel apart from the rest of the nations: “If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deut. 28:1). This set-apart-ness points toward Israel’s prime vocation – holiness: “You shall be holy for I am holy” (Lev. 11: 44-45). It is a call to reveal the holiness of God, which is concretized in Israel’s worship.
Immediately following the experience of liberation from slavery in Egypt comes the directive to mark this day as “a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Exod. 12: 4, 13: 3-10). Just as the Sabbath liturgy honors the Creator of all, the Passover feast honors Israel’s Liberator. Both experiences begin with love and freedom. The Sabbath is not simply the prohibition of work, but the freedom to worship. Similarly, the Passover feast along with all the ordinances governing every aspect of public and private life points to Yahweh’s enduring presence and the people’s continued freedom to be “my treasured possession out of all the people. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).
The Law as Freedom
The Ten Commandments begin with the announcement of liberation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2), thus showing that the environment in which the Law is lived is one of freedom to be people of dignity. A parallel can be drawn from the atrium experience. In the atrium, as in the Montessori classroom, a primary tenet is freedom in a prepared environment. There is freedom to choose and yet the environment sets limits on that freedom. If this weren’t so, there would be chaos and confusion in the environment and within the children. It is the same with the Law and the covenant. The covenant is the environment in which the Israelites are called to live and the Law sets the perimeters for behavior within that environment. The result is peace and harmony. The Law creates order and orients the people towards God. Like the prepared environment of the atrium which seeks to help children grow into full human beings and children of God, the Law, far from restricting the people, gives them the freedom to be who are meant to be – persons free to enjoy God’s preferential love.
The Law Points to God’s Eternal Presence
Yahweh’s ultimate promise is to walk with his people, as expressed in the words: “I will walk among you, and will be your God and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). It is interesting to note: “the word walk is not used very often of God, and may be an echo of the Garden of Eden story (Gen. 3:8). Thus, according to Leviticus, obedience to the Law can bring humankind back to a near-paradise situation” (Wenham, 6). God’s presence is explicitly revealed in Moses’ call to lead the people of Israel in his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, in the tablets on which the commandments are written, and in the ark where the Law is stored. Clearly, then, the Law, the very sign of the covenant, is a sign the God’s desire to be always near to the people. The prophets repeatedly remind Israel that the covenant is “an everlasting covenant” (Isa. 24:5, 55:3, Jer. 32:40, 50:5, Ezekiel 16:60, 37:26).
The Law Brings Joy
Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms, is an endless hymn of praise of the Law of God. In it Israel repeatedly expresses great joy in knowing the commandments of God: “I delight in the ways of your decrees” (v 14). “I find my delight in your commandments” (v 47). “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (v 72). “Your law is my delight” (v 77). “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (v 162). “My tongue will sing of your promise, for all your commandment are right” (v 172). All this is evidence that the one who is near to God, who practices justice, who exudes holiness, and who knows God’s love, is filled with joy. In fact, not only is the covenant an everlasting covenant, the resulting joy is also expressed as “everlasting joy” (Isa. 35:10, 51:11, 61:7).
Sofia Cavalletti also directs us to the response of joy and sees it as the response which follows a vital contact with divine love. It is the sign of a deeply religious life (The Religious Potential of the Child, 40). Even a brief study of the saints reveals the same conclusion. Joy in God is the motivating and sustaining force in their lives. In short, faithfulness to the Law and the development of the truly moral life is rooted in enjoyment of the Giver of the Law and the covenant.
The Law and The Prophets are One
“The law cannot be understood apart from the prophets” (Snodgrass, 107). Christians tend to separate the two, to see the Law as a certain set of rules and the prophets as the ones who remind the people of the rules. Even as the main task of the prophets was to call the people back to the covenant, to justice, to holiness, to remember God’s steadfast love, the significance of linking the Law and the prophets together is to point to the fact that all of scripture is needed to discern God’s will in the world. That is to say, “the Law and the prophets point beyond themselves to the action of God” (Mendenhall, 1186). The ultimate action of God is steadfast love as expressed in these familiar prophetic images: Jeremiah 31:31-34 I will write it on their hearts.
Ezra 36:26 I will give them a new heart and a new spirit.Ezra 34:15 I will be their shepherd
The Law is both simple and complex, a gift and a command, a past event and a present reality. Most of all it is rooted in God’s desire to draw all of humanity into the divine embrace as illustrated in gentle coaxing of the Deuteronomist: “The Lord will circumcise your heart… surely this commandment is not too hard for you….the word is very near to you; it is on your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:1-14). Similarly, the maxims Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount also are part of the ongoing relationship between God and human beings. Wenham, Gordon. Bruce Kaye, and Gordon Wendam, editors. “Grace and Law in the Old Testament” and “Law and the Legal System in the Old Testament” in Law, Morality and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978: 173-186.
The Maxims in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel
“He went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying…” (Matt. 5:1-2). At the very start of his inaugural speech, Jesus assumes the posture of a rabbi, sitting to teach the Law. Echoes of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Law are evident. Mountaintops were the traditional location where divine revelations took place. The difference is that Jesus gives the Law rather than receives it as Moses did. In fact, as we shall see, Jesus supercedes the Mosaic Law even as he upholds it.
The maxims are embedded in this long discourse on proper understanding of the Law (Matt. 5-7). Seeing them from within this context keeps them and the listener rooted in the over-arching reality of the covenant, which is so central to the Jewish life and faith. The maxims, like the Mosaic Law, are not isolated directives for moral living, but habits of behavior that originate in the covenantal life initiated by God and embraced by the people of Israel. Therefore, what Jesus teaches is not something new and different. He teaches Torah. In short, the Matthean Jesus proclaims “the good news of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23). That is, he proclaims by word and example the good news of the will of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus begins with the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12). This is an address to the citizens of the kingdom of heaven and reveals the radical nature of discipleship in the kingdom. He then goes on to name the citizens’ relation to the world as salt of the earth and light to the world (Matt. 5:13-16). He upholds the impeccability of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20), explains what righteousness in the kingdom really looks like (Matt. 5:21-48), addresses issues of piety and trust in God (Matt. 6:1- 7:12), and concludes with an exhortation to enter the kingdom “through the narrow gate”
(Matt. 7: 13-27). In the end, the people are amazed “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:29).
The Beatitudes: An Address to the Citizens of the Kingdom Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called
children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and
utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The placement of the Beatitudes at the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on the Law mirrors the announcement of God’s love prior to the delivery of the Law on Mount Sinai. Notice: The blessedness is ascribed not to achievers, but to receivers. The Beatitudes stand in an analogous position to the covenant statement that precedes the Ten Commandments. That is, the Law is given to a people who already enjoy relationship to God through their election by grace. Because they are the people of God, rather than to become the people of God, they are to obey the commandments (Hagner, 368).
Just as the Mosaic covenant and subsequent Law begins with the divine act of freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt, so also the first four beatitudes announce freedom:
- from despair (blessed are the poor in spirit)
- from grief (blessed are those who mourn)
- from want (blessed are the meek)
- from injustice (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness).
And just as the Mosaic Law directs Israel toward freedom to be “a light to the nations” by their polices of justice and mercy, the second four beatitudes declare freedom:
- for healing (blessed are the merciful)
- for integrity (blessed are the pure in heart)
- for peace (blessed are the peacemakers)
- for faithfulness (blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake)
There are two beatitudes in particular which highlight the connection between the Mosaic Law and Jesus’ teaching and fulfillment of the Law. They are “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6) and “Blessed are merciful, for they will obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Righteousness and justice are central themes in the Torah. Therefore, standing at the center of the Beatitudes, these two pronouncements reveal that “righteous observance of the Law is expressed in merciful action toward the neighbor” (Hagner, 357). In fact, five of the seven times mercy is used in Matthew’s gospel it occurs in the context of healings. For Jesus, righteousness is mercy in action and as soon as he speaks about it he does it, as seen in the healing of the man with the withered hand (Matt. 12:9-13). Therefore teaching Torah always involves teaching righteousness, mercy and justice. These have always been expected policies of life under the covenant and therefore attributes of the reign of God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus lifts them up once again, saying this is what life really looks like in the kingdom of heaven. The Beatitudes then are not so much a call to action as an awakening to the reality of life already begun in the people of God. The divine intent is for the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who thirst for righteousness to assist in relieving despair, grief, want, and injustice of every sort. Jesus makes it clear that the vulnerable, the suffering, the outcast and those who possess the spirit of covenantal mercy are children of God and therefore the true heirs to and icons of the reign of God.
Echoes of Israel’s election are clearly evident. Throughout Israel’s history, Yahweh chose the smallest, youngest, weakest or otherwise least likely to fulfill the divine plan. Their very smallness and insignificance makes those on the underbelly of society light to the world and points toward the whole essence of the Law – pure love of God and care of one’s neighbor.
You are the Salt of the Earth and Light of the World Matthew 5:13-16
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restore? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, indeed throughout the whole of Scripture, there exists a constant tension between the indicative and the imperative, between what is and what is to be, between the kingdom that is “at hand” and “thy kingdom come.“ While the Beatitudes hold the proclamation of the reality of the Kingdom and the call to action in tension, the twin announcements: “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14) highlight the already-ness of the citizens of the kingdom. They are already blessed, already fortunate, already happy, already salt and light. There is nothing more for them to do but remain merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, adding zest and light to the world.
In their very postures of poverty, humility, and thirsty for righteousness, the followers of Jesus enhance the life of the world as salt enhances the taste of food. Similarly, by their vocation as children of God, they radiate the will of God as a light sitting on a lamp stand. Therefore the proclamation to: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16) is not a call to action, but a reminder of who they are already: a people chosen to be “a light to the nations.”
Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law Matthew 5:17-19
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of the letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
By naming the poor, the suffering, the hungry, the persecuted as entrants into the kingdom, Jesus lifts up the very essence of the Law – care of those in need. Therefore, he states emphatically: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Here Jesus says in no uncertain terms that the Law, with its enduring emphasis on justice and mercy, remains of supreme importance. Jesus proclaims as the prophets did in the past that the Law is the absolute statement of the will of God. He does not give a new Law or even a new interpretation of the Law. Instead Jesus affirms and embodies the Law by teaching and enacting it throughout his life. This ultimately leads to his death; and in his resurrection the promises in the Beatitudes are also fulfilled in him – he is comforted, sees God, receives mercy, and inherits the kingdom of heaven.
What Jesus does is take the Law completely into himself and in so doing fulfills the essence of the messianic hope. Israel had long envisioned a Messiah who would “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captive and release the prisoners (Isa. 61:1). Jesus does not give a new Law. Instead, he substitutes himself for the Law. That is, in him the focus shifts from following the Torah to following the person of Jesus who is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. As mentioned in part one of this paper, the Law and the prophets are proclaimed together to indicate that taken together all the Scriptures reveal the complete will of God. That will involves complete love of God and neighbor and this Jesus performs perfectly.
The Call to Greater Righteousness Matthew 5:20
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus concludes his proclamation on the primacy of the Law with the injunction: “unless your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). In other words, one who hopes to embody the Law as Jesus did – taking the side of the poor and oppressed, assuming the role of servant with true humility, and recognizing one’s own poverty and hunger – must know more than the Law itself, one must know God. The question is not whether or not it is physically possible to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), but whether the experience of divine grace is vibrant enough in a person to make complete love of God and care of one’s neighbor a free act (Luz, 351 in Stock, 95). The list of directives that follows reveals the wholeheartedness required for perfect obedience to the Law of God. The maxims are embedded within these directives for greater righteousness.
Righteousness Toward Neighbor Matthew 5:21-48
The introductory statement to each of the directives for greater righteousness: “You have heard it said to those of ancient times…. but I say to you…” echo the Mosaic tradition. “The first part (‘You have heard’) reminds disciples of the traditional custom of hearing the law read and expounded in services of worship.
The second part (‘it was said’) features the use of the ‘divine passive’ and is a periphrase for ‘God said.’ The third part (‘to the people of old’) envisages the Israelites at Sinai who received the law but includes as well the generations subsequent to them who have also received it” (Stock, 82).
While upholding the Mosaic tradition, Jesus points to the ultimate will of God by daring to put his word above that of Moses by saying in effect: that’s all well and good, “but I say to you…’’ What follows is Jesus’ mining of the hearts of human beings, going down deep into underlying motivations. Anger is as destructive as murder, lust as sinful as adultery, swearing a sign of a divided heart, etc. To each of these injunctions, Jesus gives a concrete and very practical maxim for living according to the will of God. The following outline illustrates the link between injunction and maxim: Obviously all these maxims are not given to children.
“You have heard it said… ‘you shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother of sister you will be liable to judgment.”
Maxim “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.” Matt. 5:23-24
“Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with them…” Matt. 5:25
“You have heard it said…, ‘You shall not commit adultery’… But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matt. 5:28
Maxim “If your right eye/hand causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Matt. 5:29-30
“You have heard it said…’You shall not swear falsely, but carry out
the vows you have made to the Lord’… but I say to you, do not
swear at all…” Matt. 5:33-36
Maxim “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’” Matt. 5:37
“You have heard it said… ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a
tooth’ …but I say to you. Do not resist an evildoer.” Matt. 5:38
Maxim “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone want to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Matt. 39b-41
“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Matt. 5:42
“You have heard it said…’You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’… but I say to you…
Maxim “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matt. 5:44
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt. 5:48
Throughout all of this entire section, Jesus names the enduring importance of righteousness and mercy toward one’s neighbor with the maxim: “Love your enemy” summarizing and heightening the call to righteousness toward one’s neighbor.
Righteousness Toward God Matthew 6:1-18
After announcing the radical nature of discipleship with its insistence on love toward all, the Matthean Jesus warns of obeying the commands of God for the sole purpose of gaining human recognition: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). Just as the covenant was initiated by God, so too the human response is to be God oriented. The invitation is to honor God by responding to the gift of divine grace with equal graciousness and love – not in order to earn a place in the kingdom or to gain recognition by God or other human beings but because those who love God wholly know a greater reward “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). The central maxim in this section, then, is “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). The isolation is more than physical; it is spiritual as well. The invitation in this maxim is to have one’s heart utterly fixed on God for it is in the hidden places of the heart that God sees and knows a person’s true intentions.
Surrounding the call to pray in secret are two other traditional Jewish practices of piety: almsgiving and fasting. They too come with maxims for engaging in these practices for God alone rather than for human recognition: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you” (Matt. 6:2) and “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face” (Matt. 6:17). Within the listing of the three traditional Jewish practices of piety, prayer occupies the central location, thus revealing the primacy of relationship with God for all moral action. This call to be totally focused on God stands at the very center of the Sermon on the Mount with the Lord’s Prayer residing in this central location as well. All that came before and all that follows brings one face to face with Jesus who came proclaiming total commitment to and fulfillment of the Law of God. The aim is not perfect virtue but “comprehensive commitment to the way pointed out by Jesus” (Stock, 94). Jesus was not merely the perfect human being; he is the embodiment of the nature and will of God. That will insists on complete love of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6: 5) and the accompanying love of neighbor: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; see also Matt. 22:37-39, Mark 12: 29-31, and Luke 10:27). These two great commandments imply total trust in God.
Trusting in God’s Righteousness and Mercy Matthew 6:19-7:12
From the three traditional Jewish practices of piety, Jesus harks back to the previous pattern of naming specific injunctions and then articulating corresponding maxims. This time the injunctions are stated in the negative with hints of the refrain: “You have heard it said…but I say to you….” running beneath the surface:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Matt. 6:19-20
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Matt. 6:25
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” Matt. 6:34
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Matt. 7:1
“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matt. 6:33
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Matt. 7:3
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Matt. 7:7
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” Matt. 7:12
Like the Beatitudes, the injunctions proclaim freedom from those things that bog people down: worry about daily needs, fear of being found inadequate and the resulting tendency to compare, compete and oppress. Similarly, the resulting maxims offer freedom to seek, ask, and receive all that human beings most want – justice, mercy, integrity, peace, and daily bread.
The Essence of the Law is Doing the Will of God Matthew 7:21-29
“Enter through the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deed of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; Go away from me, you evildoers.’ Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matt. 7:21-29
Jesus then commends his listeners to “enter by the narrow gate” (Matt. 7:13). That is, by the way of the Law of the covenant. Throughout Israel’s history, Yahweh said: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days” (Deut. 31:19b-20, Jer 21:8, Ps. 1). Jesus echoes this sentiment in the maxim: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21), for “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matt. 7:24), but “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand” (Matt. 7:26). Ultimately, the divine commitment to the covenant insists on human participation. Obedience, obligation, and duty are all real expectations of those who enjoy God’s favor. In fact, “the real onus for keeping the covenant is on Israel” (McKenzie, 37).
The Sermon on the Mount ends with the people showing astonishment at Jesus’ teaching, “ for he taught them as one having authority and not like their scribes” (Matt. 7:28). As in the beginning, we see at the closing echoes of divine revelation and authority. This is a word above all other words, revered throughout the generations, and meditated upon for centuries. But it begins with the call to live in intimate relationship with the God of all. So it is no surprise that those who knew the protective and saving love of the Lord God “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” would begin their hymn book with the declaration “their delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1: 2) and continually exclaim: “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I many not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).
The Law of God and the Older Child
Maria Montessori reminds us that the reality of the kingdom of God is “a pre- existing reality which is constantly unfolding” (Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child Six to Twelve Years Old, 33). The call to justice, mercy, and love of neighbor is not an ideal for human beings to attain, but the reality of the reign of God to which we are to adapt our lives. The children are particularly aware of this divinely ordained reality and cling to the maxims with great joy. The six-year-old who wrote: “I will give my life and soul to the Lord” also wrote his own psalm on maxim paper: “The Lord loves us and we love the Lord. If the Lord loves one, he loves them all. If one of us loves him, all of us love him.”
Cavalletti, Sofia. History’s Golden Thread. Trans. Rebekah Rojcewicz. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999.
_____. The Religious Potential of the Child. Translated by Rebekah Rojcewicz and Julie Coulter. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992.
_____. The Religious Potential of the Child Six to Twelve Years Old. Translated by Rebekah Rojcewicz and Alan R. Perry.Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2002.
Hagner, Donald. “Law, Righteousness and Discipleship in Matthew” in Word and World. Vol. XVIII,. No.4 (Fall 1998) 364-370.
Hinkle, Mary. Web site: pilgrimpreaching.org. Date Accessed: April 20, 2005.
McKenzie, Steven L. Covenant. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000.
Mendenhall, George E. and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD), Vol. 1, 1175-1201.
Snodgrass, Klyne. “Matthew and the Law” in Treasures New and Old. Edited by David R. Bauer and Mark Allan Powell. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996: 99-128.
Stock, Augustine. The Method and Message of Matthew. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.
Wenham, Gordon. Bruce Kaye, and Gordon Wendam, editors. “Grace and Law in the Old Testament”and“Law and the Legal System in the Old Testament” in Law, Morality and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978: 173-186.
All Biblical translations in this paper are taken from the NRSV translation.