The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.
The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters. Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.
I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances. I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”