“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
“Hey Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible? . . . Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?”
—Chaim Potok, In the Beginning
“Love is the fulfillment of the law”
The Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Jesus on the hills of Galilee in the presence of his disciples and the large crowds that were following him at that time, is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and impressive descriptions of the kingdom of God found anywhere in Scripture. They had a dramatic effect at the time; people listening were astonished at his manner: “he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29). And listeners continue to be astonished today: the content of the Sermon is so completely radical, beyond the bounds of what we might call normal behaviour. Jesus claims in his Sermon not to be abolishing the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), and perhaps that is so, but the claims he makes concerning the attitudes and practices of those who are in the kingdom of God seem to extend far beyond anything we might find in the Old Testament. His teachings on marriage, on nonresistance to evil, on love toward enemies, on anger, even on worrying, are so dramatic, so radical, that we may well join with the disciples who cry out, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25).
We who live in the time after the resurrection know the answer to that cry: none of us can be saved except by faith in Christ. And yet, the Sermon on the Mount still holds out to us a great picture, perhaps the great picture, of what the life based on Christ could be like. Many Christians see these chapters as the heart of Jesus’s teaching—sort of “the Bible within the Bible.” In some Bible editions, the Sermon isn’t only in red, it’s in a special font!
Of course, it’s when people begin to discuss the purpose and the practicability of the Sermon that the great interpretive debates begin—that is, when they begin to work through its content and seek to bring it to life in our lives and societies. It’s a ticklish thing: Are we really supposed to take this literally?
It might be possible to say the function of the Sermon is different from what is often supposed. Perhaps Jesus’s aim is simply to remind us of our sinfulness and our need for divine salvation—it certainly does accomplish that. Or perhaps the Sermon describes life as it will be on the new earth after Christ’s return—no doubt it does that as well. But the more interesting, and (I believe) more faithful, interpretations are those that make no attempt to wriggle out of the requirements of the Sermon, that believe Jesus was deadly serious when he offered these words, as a guide to living, here and now.
The interpretation of John Howard Yoder is an example. In line with his Anabaptist perspective, Yoder suggests that if the Sermon describes what Jesus requires of us, then this is precisely what we must do. Yoder suggests that Christians who follow Christ’s pattern will frequently find themselves at odds with the patterns of the world, that they will assume the posture of nonviolence, and that they will find in the church an alternate community, even an alternate polity, that operates according to the radical principles Jesus outlines. Not infrequently, says Yoder, Christians will find themselves on the path of suffering as they follow their Lord on his path of suffering, even to the cross. Rather than following compromised moral systems that try to reconcile Jesus’s words with the state and its essentially coercive character, Christians leave responsibility for history to the Lord of history.
Another well-known interpretation can be found in the writing of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is much more willing to contemplate Christians taking responsibility for the course of history. Like Yoder, Niebuhr holds to a strong ethic of love: complete obedience to God’s will, personified most clearly in Christ. Indeed, Niebuhr speaks of a law of love. The problem is that sin makes us unable to realize this love, and Jesus’s Sermon becomes “an impossible possibility.” Note the paradox. We are required to obey Christ’s message, but to do so is the height of irresponsibility, even Christian irresponsibility. We must act politically, even though this implies coercion. What’s the final status of the law of love in Niebuhr’s world? It’s the ultimate standard, but not one that can actually be implemented.
Interestingly, although the policy implications of these careful thinkers are very different, their analyses of the biblical text are actually very similar. The two share a very high view of Niebuhr’s “law of love.” What must Christians do above all? Love! What Niebuhr means by the “law of love” is precisely what Yoder understands to be the calling of the Christian.
The phrase “law of love” suggests to me another way we might consider this challenge, that there may be another way to understand what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon. Key to the claim Jesus makes in Matthew 5 is that his teaching does not abolish the Law and the Prophets, but rather that his teaching fulfills the law. The Sermon on the Mount offers us a host of applications and illustrations of what the law of God requires. As the biblical scholar Herman Ridderbos emphasizes, Jesus’s claim is that the law doesn’t refer only to the external deed (the “letter”) but to the inner disposition (the “spirit”) as well. So, for example, rather than compelling us to tell the truth when we are under oath (as the letter requires), we are actually compelled to tell the truth all the time (as the spirit requires), without recourse to buttressing oaths (Matthew 5:33—37).
So the radicalism of Jesus’s words here is actually the radicalism of the law itself. He is not attempting to establish a new letter of the law that replaces the old, but rather is offering illustrations that aim to demonstrate the end, the purpose, the underlying point of the law. It turns out that to love radically is not to love in spite of God’s law given in Scripture and encountered in creation— but actually in and through the law.
Learning To Love The Law In Liberal Societies
This can be a challenging teaching in liberal societies that consider law to be largely negative, albeit necessary. Laws limit our freedom, we assume; they impose restrictions on our humanity, and though they may be instrumentally valuable—they keep us from killing each other—their value extends only that far. But Christians, who declare with the psalmist that that “the law of Lord revives the soul,” should not be surprised that Jesus does not offer love as a replacement for the law. It is not despite the law, but rather through the law, that we encounter the radical love of God for his people and in turn express it in the world around us.
In Chaim Potok’s wonderful novel In the Beginning, the main character, Davey, recounts a remarkable scene in his synagogue, “crowded and tumultuous with joy.” He describes a Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls “as if he had miraculously shed his years,” and even his own father and uncle dancing, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing on one another, backing off, singing. And he wonders if gentiles ever dance with their Bible: “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible? . . . Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?”
Dancing with the law. That’s not a bad way to describe what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount: dancing, circling about us with the law, now advancing on us, now backing off, and always singing, bringing us deeper into his law, and into the love of the Word itself.
For this reason, the various injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount (turning the other cheek, oaths, lust, and so on) should not be interpreted as Jesus offering an entirely new ethic in a few new commandments. When Jesus enjoins his followers to love their enemies and to not resist evil, he is welcoming them deeper into the law, into the radical love found behind it. And when we his followers do so, we may discover that this very love will demand in particular circumstances that evil must in fact be resisted. In political life, this implies that, contrary to what Yoder suggests, the law of love, outlined by Jesus so strikingly in Matthew 5, does have a particular manifestation for the political life of the state. However, in opposition to what Niebuhr suggests, when we seek after justice in public political life, we are not abandoning love, but we are actually showing the radical love of God’s law in politics.
So, for example, if we are concerned about the consequences of structural racism on housing patterns in America, and we seek justice—that is, real political justice—for our neighbours of different races with regard to segregation, it seems to me that this is precisely what it means to obey the love command in politics. We can go further: we may be righteously angry, and even furious, about racism’s continuing impact on the lives of ourselves and our neighbours, and not worry that we are somehow violating the law of love. (Otherwise it seems that Jesus himself was being less than fully loving when he picked up a whip and kicked the money changers out of the temple.) In fact, seeking after justice is precisely how we obey Christ’s command to love within politics!
To take a line from Cornel West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
In other areas of life, that love may be expressed differently than it is in political life. The love of God is given shape by the character of the place in which it is expressed. Suppose that one of our children hits his sister in anger, and we his faithful parents patiently but firmly inform him that this behaviour is not acceptable in the family, and that he now will have to face some unpleasant consequences: double dishwashing duty perhaps, or the loss of Lego privileges. It seems to me that what these parents are doing is precisely what it means to obey the law of love within the family! Indeed, it would be the height of irresponsibility— neglect even—were those parents to “love” their son by informing their daughter that she should turn the other cheek. Though (in this case) discipline is required because of sin, the loving disciplining of children is precisely what it means to obey the radical law of love in the family. Similar illustrations could be made for employee maltreatment in the workplace, heresy in the church, the Boston Bruins’ game against Montreal, the global financial markets; I could go on.
Imagine a prism. White light enters into the prism—that’s the law of love, preached so radically by Jesus in Matthew 5. What emerges from the prism is a most wonderful refraction of colour—each colour still the light of love, but seen differently within each area of life. In a family, we love through the disciplining of our children and in the love found within a marriage. In a business, we love by producing products and services that bring a responsible profit: we don’t abuse our employees, we don’t pollute the environment, and we set fair prices. In the classroom, we love not by handing out A’s—but by teaching and discussing and learning and yes, by assigning grades. And in politics, we love in our pursuit of justice—even when, with fear and trembling, we must take up the sword. To do anything else, I fear, is to shrink from the radical teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Ultimately, I don’t think Yoder is radical enough. He’s all about following the path of Jesus, radical discipleship—all the way to the cross. And so he envisions an alternative Christian community, the church. But is that really the radical message that Jesus brings? Far more radical, it seems to me, is for Jesus to say, “love your neighbour. . . in your law school.” Jesus is calling us to figure out how to “turn the other cheek” . . . when we’re an executive with Microsoft. See to the good of your enemy . . . in your internship with the Department of Homeland Security. Seek first the kingdom of God . . . as a chaplain in the US Army.
The content of Christian righteousness, as found in the Law and the Prophets, and as fulfilled in Jesus’s words of the Sermon on the Mount, is complex and multifaceted. It will not require of everyone at every moment and in all circumstances the same response. Rather, the law, as refracted by the people of God, will shine with a different colour in each area of life, as Christians seek to express the radical love of Jesus, letting their light so shine, so that others may see, and perhaps be welcomed themselves to Jesus’s dance with the Torah.