Yeshua’s words are like a current of living wind in the deadness of the desert. He spoke with authority, not just interpreting Torah like other teachers, but even adding to it. He increased its moral vision and pressed the ideal of righteousness beyond the literal reading. Therefore he made a statement clarifying what he was doing, saying “I have not come to abolish Torah or the prophets” (Matt 5:17).
Dale Allison, a leading scholar of Matthew, says that Christianity managed not to hear Yeshua in this matter (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, New York: T&T Clark, 2004, pg. 72). Instead, teachers and commentators tried to harmonize the saying found in Matthew with their understanding of Paul about the role of Torah. Therefore few have understood what Yeshua is doing in Matthew 5 or what it has to do with Jewish belief. “You have heard it said,” Yeshua says repeatedly in Matthew 5:21-48, “but I say to you.” In these correctives Yeshua is not just setting right some poor interpretations of Torah, but he is speaking from his own authority and demanding more than the literal Torah.
The meaning of Matthew 5:17 is clarified, says Allison, by vs. 20, which speaks of a righteousness surpassing that of the Torah teachers. Messiah requires his followers to keep all that is in Moses but “Messiah also brings something new” (72). Yeshua came to fill up the Torah with more meaning and to bring about the end times realization of its meaning. Yeshua’s days are the days of redemption to which Torah pointed. This does not annul Torah but reaffirms it while at the same time going beyond it.
It’s such a different way of reading, one that has been neglected in the general religious culture for so long it is hard at first to see. It sounds like something new. But reading the words of Yeshua in Jewish categories is not new. Rather it is what his original hearers understood and what he assumed would be true of his audience. Modern readers can better understand the connection between Yeshua and Judaism by regularly reading Torah and the Gospels together. That’s what the Daily D’var email list is all about. Sign up here and every morning get the daily readings from Torah and the Gospels with commentary. And to get weekly links and extras sign up here for the MJ Musings weekly email.
Matthew 5:17 is hardly the only place Yeshua affirms that all in Torah continues to apply to Israel. When criticizing some Pharisees who placed a high importance on lesser matters in Torah, making stringencies like tithing on herb gardens matters of pride, Yeshua said something revealing about his view of Torah. The Pharisees, he said, were right to pay attention to even minor matters in Torah. Their error was not in keeping the smaller commandments, but in making them more important than greater commandments such as mercy and justice (Matt 23:23-24).
Yeshua’s way in Matthew 5 is an ideal, a pattern for moral living that urges us to go beyond ourselves, reaching for something new. As it is an ideal, Yeshua’s way is not a minimum standard, some rule which God will punish us for not following. It is a better way. It is a high point to aim for, something to challenge us to grow as human beings toward divine perfection. But forgiveness from heaven is built into Yeshua’s teachings.
Many have remarked that the teachings are not practical. They are too demanding. They are not realistic. Yet Allison clears all this up nicely by saying, “Its primary purpose is to instil principles and qualities through a vivid inspiration of the moral imagination” (76). It is not to be taken too literally. In fact, being overly literal with Yeshua’s words can lead to “absurdities.”
So, for example, Yeshua says anger is the beginning of murder (5:21-26) and that calling someone a fool is a great sin. Taken literally, this would imply that all anger is wrong and that saying “fool” is a legal prohibition. Yet Yeshua himself calls his enemies fools (23:17). How can this be?
Yeshua’s style of teaching does not take time to explain exceptions or to balance purposeful exaggerations. He teaches like a wisdom sage or prophet, speaking in absolutes but then in other places tempering the harshness with his “easy yoke” (11:29). The way of correction is to cause us to question the validity of our anger and to push us to eliminate this source of conflict and evil within ourselves. The fact that God is rightfully angry, that it is sometimes righteousness to be angry, is not the point. Most of our anger is based on self-centeredness. The careful student both understands the elimination of anger from our souls as a way of life and also the occasional anger we must feel for injustice.
Yeshua intensifies the Torah. Anger, not just violence, must be eliminated within us (5:21-26). He continues, banning lustful thoughts and the desire for inappropriate sexual relations (5:27-30), prohibiting casual divorce (5:31-32), disallowing oaths (5:33-37), enjoining humility in the face of insults and persecution (5:38-42), and urging love even for enemies (43-48). In every case the idea of evil is refocused. Whereas literal commandments concern outward actions, righteousness is a matter of the heart. Yeshua’s teaching is an inward way, a reconfiguring of attitudes and emotions, a vision in which the rule of God over the world is more important than any selfish concern.
Students of the Jewish discipline of Mussar may recognize a similar idea in Yeshua’s teaching. We are whole people, body and soul. Evil speech and actions come from the interior parts which are damaged and in need of God’s healing. Yeshua instructs in this principle repeatedly: “the mouth speaks what overflows from the heart” (12:34), “the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (12:35), “what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean!” (15:11), and “out of the heart come forth wicked thoughts, murder, adultery and other kinds of sexual immorality, theft, lies, slanders” (15:19). Following God in the highest way is about seeking to rid our inner selves of these things.
What we find in Yeshua’s teaching about life is an intensified Torah, not an annulled one.