Greater minds than mine agree that the gospel is about more than morality. However, we are entering the part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48) in which Jesus weighs in on the norms by which the Jewish people—his people, lest we forget—were bound.
In six instances, Jesus rabbinically adjudicates moral quandaries posed by the Torah or law. We might rightly ask what the significance of these ancient rules is to the Western Gentile Christian today. Before attempting an answer, I must offer a caution.
The speaker sets up a dichotomy. On one hand stand “the law and the prophets.” This was understood by first century Palestinian Jews before the year 70 to mean what we now call the Old Testament. On the other hand, are the teachings of “the scribes and Pharisees.” This means the commentary of a particular sect or “party,” of which there were many in Jesus’ day, many more than in modern Judaism.
A common Western, second millennium mistake is to read the text as a sample of Jesus’ quarrels with Pharisees around the years 28 to 35.
In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus himself may have belonged to or been close to the party of the Pharisees. In this interpretation, the original oral sources recounting such disputations were little more than intramural rhetorical fencing such as might occur at a modern yeshiva, or Jewish academy of Torah study, among even like-minded rabbis.
There is more. The gospel text is not quite the same as the oral source. We know it to be edited and written for and by the community at Antioch (located in modern Turkey), where Matthew held sway, some 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death. The gospel does not offer a transcript of a speech, but a heavily edited set of sayings that were put there to address the concerns of the community from which the gospel of Matthew emerged.
What were those concerns? They were those of the overwhelmingly Jewish early Christian community led by Matthew, probably located in Antioch, (ancient) Syria. The text is playing out a posthumous intramural argument about Jesus’ supposed opinions — call it a “What Would Jesus Say” for the Jewish Christians of decade of the first-century 40s or 50s.
Keep in mind that these Christians were still going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, in addition to their Eucharistic “agape suppers” on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection and their Synaxis gatherings to study the holy books and new good news.
These were the original Christians, the ones the Antiochenes pejoratively nicknamed Kristianoi, which was an equivalent of referring to members of the Unification Church “Moonies.” Christian originally meant something like “Christies,” and in “Oh, here come these Christies, preaching again with their stupid beatific smiles!”
They were also Jews. There is compelling evidence that in ancient Syria Jewish Christians continued going to the synagogue until as late as the 6th century of our era!
OK, back to the gospel text.The gospel of Matthew is really comparing and contrasting two readings of the Torah.
One is Pharisaic—and normative to Judaism since the year 70, we’ll see how and why later—presented as what “you have heard.” The other is grounded in what the community understood to be the real, full, more demanding meaning attributed to Jesus, introduced as “I say.”
Note that, contrary to the often wrongly-used (with veiled antisemitism) terms “Phariseism” and “Pharisaic,” the Pharisees come out looking like pretty good guys.
The Jesus of the gospel of Matthew, speaking on the Mount, calls for the fulfillment of the law, just like the Pharisees. Indeed, there is considerable praise in the speaker’s warning that “unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).