Difficult Passages Series — Matthew 5:20-48 for May 12

1.     Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?

We find this section of the Sermon on the Mount difficult simply because the OT eye-for-an-eye justice comes more naturally to us.   It appeals to our elementary sense of fairness.  We resist Jesus’ efforts to raise our sights.

 In addition, we forget the audience. Matthew is usually considered the gospel targeted more for Jewish readers.   To them the meaning of “fulfilling the law” is crucial.   Saying to Jewish people of Jesus’ time that you wanted them to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees would likely be interpreted to mean that you expected them to outdo the Pharisees at their own game of keeping Jewish regulations scrupulously.  This passage is intended precisely to derail that kind of interpretation and point the listener and reader in another direction, a direction of fulfillment that is both deeper and higher.

2.     How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?

It is important to see that in this whole section of the sermon on the Mount after v. 20, Jesus is illustrating the truth that he sets forth in that verse, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20 NIV).  He summarizes this truth in the last verse of this section, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48 NIV).   Jesus is explaining when he says, he came to fulfill the law, (v. 17) that he definitely does not mean business as usual among the Pharisees and teachers of the law of his day.  He has a higher level of fulfilling in mind.  Kingdom ethics will be modeled after God’s love instead.

3.     What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?

  • One key is to recognize that Jesus is pointing to the motivation for the act.  Uncontrolled anger is a cause of murder (vv 21,22);  being too proud to resolve a dispute can lead to increasing complications (vv. 25,26); lust unchecked leads to adultery (vv 27,28).


  • He is also pointing out that you cannot wash your hands of inner guilt by just doing the proper ritual thing; offering your gift while at odds with a brother (vv 23,24); divorcing your wife and then marrying someone else that you wanted to marry instead (vv. 31,32 cf. Matt. 19:9). 


  • Jesus is teaching that the demands of kingdom living lead past the legalism of the law into matters of the spirit rather than the letter; its not the exact oath, it’s whether you need an oath at all (vv. 33-37);  overcome evil with good (vv. 38-42); expand our concept of neighbor (vv 43-47).   The love of the Father is the Spirit of the law (v. 48).

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