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The Sermon on the Mount

Joseph Chaumet
Joseph Chaumet

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of Jesus’ five long speeches in the Gospel of Matthew. It is a three-chapter summary of Jesus’ moral instruction. One of its chief subjects is the Law of Moses (Matt 5:17-48). The speech is controversial because it seems to assert, contrary to Paul and most later Christian tradition, that followers of Jesus should still observe the entirety of the Law, which would seemingly include circumcision and dietary regulations (Matt 5:17-20). At the same time, it also appears to dispense with several parts of the Law (Matt 5:31-48). Does the passage contradict itself? Or is it consistent with the perspective of Matthew’s gospel as a whole?

Does the Sermon on the Mount teach that Christians should still observe the Law of Moses?

The six paragraphs addressing the law concern anger (Matt 5:21-26), lust (Matt 5:27-30), divorce (Matt 5:31-32), oaths (Matt 5:33-37), revenge (Matt 5:38-42), and love (Matt 5:43-48). Many biblical scholars label these paragraphs “antitheses,” because in their view Jesus and Moses are at odds with each other. The Law of Moses permits divorce (Deut 24:1-4), oaths (Lev 19:12; Num 30:2-3; Deut 23:22), and retaliation (Exod 21:24-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21). Jesus, with his repeated “but I say to you,” prohibits all of them.

Yet there are problems with supposing that Jesus contradicts the Law of Moses. Matt 5:17-20 says explicitly that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. To the contrary, people should obey and teach them. One could scarcely be any clearer. It looks very much as though Matt 5:17-20 is located precisely where it is in order to prevent readers from imagining that Jesus, in the paragraphs that follow, intends to undo the teachings of Moses.

But how can this be, if Jesus abolishes divorce and oaths and forbids retaliation? The problem may be an illusion, if we think in terms of practice: those who obey Jesus’ words will not transgress any law in the Hebrew Bible. Moses may allow divorce, but he does not command it. He may allow oaths, but he does not demand them. And he may allow retaliation, but he does not require it. So shunning divorce, oaths, and retaliation does not violate what the Law of Moses commanded.

This way of looking at things is consistent with the way Matthew, as compared to the other Gospels, treats some matters. For example, in a discussion of dietary customs in Mark 7:1-23, the evangelist Mark comments that Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). Matthew, in his version of the same story, says nothing comparable (Matt 15:1-20). This omission would make sense if the Christian readers of Matthew’s gospel were still expected to follow dietary and other Jewish laws. Similarly, in Mark 13:18, Jesus tells his followers to pray that tribulation not overtake them in winter. In the parallel account in Matt 24:20, Jesus tells them to pray that they not be overtaken “in winter or on a sabbath.” This expanded version seems to assume that the Sabbath still matters for readers of this gospel.

Another striking example is Matt 23:23, where Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees with these words: “Hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” The closing words, “without neglecting the others,” appear to assume the continuing validity of the Law of Moses for followers of Jesus. So it is natural to think of Matthew’s gospel as representing a type of Law-observant Christianity, a Jewish Christianity that wanted to preserve the old traditions along with the new (Matt 8:17, Matt 13:52).

Does the Sermon on the Mount intentionally contradict Paul?

Matt 5:17 appears to rebut a real misunderstanding. That is, Matthew knows somebody who believes and teaches that Jesus came to annul the Law and the Prophets. The text would probably not be so adamant about denouncing a purely hypothetical position, one held by no one. But who is the individual or group to which Matthew reacts? Who taught that the era of the Law and Prophets had come to an end with Jesus? An answer almost inevitably suggests itself: Paul. He taught that it was not necessary for Christians to observe the Law of Moses, and he was, as far as we know, the most famous proponent of that position in the early church. Is he then the object of Matthew’s polemical text? Matt 5:17-20 certainly sounds anti-Pauline.

Many Christians have an understanding of Scripture that rejects the idea that Matthew deliberately opposes Paul. If, however, we think in historical rather than theological terms, it is hard to dismiss the possibility, even if it cannot be proven. This is all the more plausible because Acts, Romans, and Galatians show that Paul’s view of the law was controversial—certain Jewish Christians disagreed with him. Moreover, another New Testament epistle, James, attacks the view that faith without works can save a person (Jas 2:14-26). From the time of Martin Luther on, many have argued persuasively that James takes aim at Paul and his Law-free gospel. It may be the same with Matthew’s gospel, which has many other interesting points of contact with James.