A manifesto is an announcement of a leader's policies. In the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount Matthew has the Messiah explaining the principles of his Messianic kingdom.
The Sermon as written could be read in a few minutes. So it seems likely that Matthew has given us a summary of teaching which would take several hours to explain with questions and answers. And, as with any traveling preacher or political leader, the same material will be given again and again in different places with a different emphasis to suit each situation.
The manifesto was summed up as "the good news of the kingdom" (4:23), and that good news is now spelled out in a very ordered way. It should be obvious that the original gospel or good news was not limited to forgiveness, but included a totally different way of living and loving.
The Sermon is introduced by the beatitudes, where each of the nine sayings begins with the word "blessed" which could be paraphrased as "happy with the happiness that God gives." We might call it the happiness we enjoy in the Messianic kingdom. Eight beatitudes are bracketed by "the kingdom of heaven" in verses 3 and 10, and the ninth uses "you" to refer to the inevitable persecution the disciples would encounter as they live and love in this kind of way.
We might note that happiness is an attitude of mind which does not depend on possessions, comfort, or entertainment. Onlookers, who saw a woman dangling on a rope in a freezing wind over a precipice, might say "I can't think of anything worse." But back at the lodge with other climbers she could say "That was the best climb of my life." Similarly the tough happiness of the kingdom is a matter of astonishment to those who do not share it.
5:1-2 Matthew distinguishes the crowds of curious onlookers who followed Jesus, and a smaller group of disciples who went up the mountain with him for special teaching (see 8:1, where the crowds again follow him after the Sermon on the Mount). In the south and among the Jews in particular a teacher, rabbi, or guru sat down to teach the disciples who gathered around. The closer disciples would in turn explain what they had learned to others.
5:3-10 Each saying has an attitude of mind that is required. And the result is enjoyment of the kingdom (bracketed by 5:3 and 10). The joy includes being comforted, inheriting God's world, being satisfied, receiving love and mercy, knowing God, and being recognized as children of God.
Just as the enjoyment of mountain climbing requires certain attitudes of mind, so enjoying our life in the kingdom requires some attitudes of mind or ways of looking (the healthy eye of 6:22-23).
The world assumes that happiness is the result of being rich and powerful. The kingdom belongs to those who sense their own powerlessness and trust in the power of God (5:3; for God's blessing on the poor see Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 29:19b).
The world assumes that happiness is for those who feel no pain. The kingdom belongs to those who feel their own pain and also mourn with others (5:4; see Psalm 38:6; Romans 12:15).
As opposed to pride and looking down on others, even a great leader like Moses (Numbers 12:3) can be gentle with others. (5:5; quoted from Psalm 37:11; see Romans 12:16; Philippians 4:5).
As opposed to the pursuit of gourmet delicacies and other luxuries, there is a hunger and thirst for God's kind of righteousness (5:6; see Psalm 119:103; Isaiah 51:1; Romans 14:17).
Nobody enjoys the heartless. Being merciful is looking and acting with compassion like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33; see a cry of mercy addressed to the Messianic Son of David in Matthew 20:30). Merciful people do not always receive the same treatment from others, but God has a special blessing for them.
As opposed to an implacable refusal to forgive, those who forgive and welcome others find themselves forgiven (5:7; Romans 14:13; 15:7).
As opposed to double mindedness, a heart focused on what God has for us enables us to see God clearly (5:8; see Psalm 24:3; Matthew 6:21-23; Romans 8:5-6).
As opposed to quarreling and forcing one's own way, peacemakers are appreciated in any family or community (5:9; Romans 14:19).
As opposed to a bland tolerance of evil, a concern for justice and the needs of others will inevitably result in persecution (5:10; Romans 15:3).
In each of the above cases we have noted connections with Paul's Epistle to the Romans. This shows that Paul had learned from the ethos and attitudes of the kingdom which Matthew set out in these beatitudes.
5:11-12 Changing to "you" to warn his disciples to count the cost, Jesus now warns them that disciples in the Messianic kingdom will be reviled. And when this happens, rather than complain and feel sorry for themselves, they are to count it as a joyful privilege (see Philippians 3:7-8; James 1:2). John the Baptist was executed, as were many prophets before him, and Jesus himself would be crucified.
5:13 The Messianic kingdom is to function like salt. It will give taste to each community of the world in which it is mixed. This can be illustrated from every country where churches have been established. And if a church ceases to be the salt of the society it is eventually discarded as tasteless. Or to use stronger metaphorical language a church's candlestick can be removed (Revelation 2:4-5) or a church can be spat out of the Lord's mouth (Revelation 3:16).
5:14-16 The kingdom also functions as a light for the surrounding country (5:14). At night an oil lamp could be left burning under a bushel basket, which pictures a sleepy church that has no intention of letting its light shine.
Jesus explains how the Messianic kingdom relates to the law of Moses, and to the way that law was applied by the Old Testament prophets. Much depends on the meaning of "not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law till all is accomplished" (5:18). In view of the next section (5:21-48), where Jesus gives a quite new interpretation for seven important areas of Jewish law, the kingdom is obviously going to interpret law in a very different way from the usual rules and expectations of our nation.
Matthew knew that the early Christians had very quickly abandoned the Old Testament kosher food laws (Acts 10:13-16). And certainly by the time the temple was destroyed in AD 70 the practice of worship based on animal sacrifice had been replaced by new covenant worship (Hebrews 9:11-10:25).
Paul is also very clear that Christians should obey the laws of the land they live in (Romans 13:1-7) rather than try to set up a kingdom based on Old Testament criminal and civil law. He also views the last four of the ten commandments as fulfilled in Jesus law of love (Romans 13:8-10). Paul viewed circumcision as fulfilled by a spiritual circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:26-29, based on Deuteronomy 30:6).
We can view the Old Testament as a history of the Jewish people with the culture and laws that they lived by. In his manifesto, concerning every major point of moral law, the Messiah declares "But I say to you" (5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). And in every country where churches are established He will say "But I say to you" concerning every item of each nation's culture and laws.
How then can he say "not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law?" One explanation is that the ten commandments are really ten categories of moral judgment, but they have no content till they are applied in particular situations and laws are made to enforce them. People make judgments about the behavior of others and their own behavior under each of these categories, but they often differ about how the categories of honoring parents, work and rest, murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and coveting are to apply.
Evidently there is a distinction between the way the Jewish people applied these categories of moral judgment and the way Jesus interpreted them. So the Messiah is not about to weaken the moral law and its application in various situations, but rather fill them out with their proper meaning by the standard of God's kind of love.
5:17 If the above is a correct explanation then Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets by giving the proper outworking of law in his kingdom. Since all nations have laws and rules of behavior, we could say that the Sermon on the Mount sets out ways in which the norms and laws of any nation are given their proper meaning. And wherever churches have been established in any country one can see this beginning to happen.
5:18 Criminal law changes from nation to nation and from time to time, and there were changes even in Old Testament laws at various periods in Jewish history. So it is not the details which are "accomplished" and never change. But if we take all the do's and don'ts that are imparted to children, the laws and unstated norms of each society, and a people's moral sense relating to every item of justice and fairness, then we can see how each of these must be corrected and filled out by the love of God.
5:19 This means that the Messiah's kingdom does not operate by overthrowing the culture of every nation, but by helping people to see every item of right and wrong from God's point of view. The "scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven" will teach morality in a totally different way (13:52).
5:20 The scribes spent their time studying and interpreting Old Testament laws, and the Pharisees tried hard to live by their rules. The problem was that the laws were applied in a legalistic, unchangeable and often heartless way. And in our day every religion has fundamentalists who ride roughshod over the moral sense of ordinary people. Matthew will give examples of this throughout his book (e.g. 6:1, 5; 7:1, 12, 15; 9:11, 14; 12:2, 24; 15:1-2; 21:23; 23:1-36; 26:8).
To be specific Matthew now collects examples of Jesus' teaching concerning murder, adultery, divorce, swearing, revenge, enemies, and social relationships.
The first six of these are introduced by reference to what was written "You have heard" or "It was said" (5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). The seventh relates to the general area of relationships with neighbors. This was not laid down as a written law, but was assumed by custom (5:46).
As we saw in 1:17, Jesus is not telling us to abolish our laws and customs under any of these headings. But in each case he gives us the way God's kind of love is going to express itself among his Messianic followers.
5:21-22 No society can survive without a law against murder. But Jesus gives us three ways in which we can murder others without actually killing them. Murderous anger easily erupts when things go wrong in an office or a family situation (especially over the division of an estate). It may not show, but the heart attitude is "I would kill you if I could get away with it." And from the point of view of God's perfect love (5:48) it is equivalent to murder.
The translation "if you insult a brother or sister" misses the point of raca (properly left untranslated in the KJV). The heart attitude is "You are a dead loss, that's it. I no longer recognize you as a person. You are not even worth killing. I will just ignore you, and will never bother with you again." People with a raca attitude may exchange polite greetings, but the other person might as well not exist. He or she has been murdered by being written off out of one's mind.
There is a gradation of awfulness. Murderous anger is the kind of case dealt with by a local magistrate. Writing off another person is as bad as the crimes that are dealt with by the supreme court of the Sanhedrin. But the most awful way to murder another is by treating the person as a complete idiot. That deserves being trashed on the burning gehenna rubbish dump below the south wall of Jerusalem (for gehenna see comment on 5:29 & 30).
It is easy to see the root of all three ways of murdering in any school yard. "I wish I could kill you." "I will never speak to you again." "Mary is retarded, Mary is retarded." And the third kind of treatment hurts most of all.
In a marriage murderous feelings are bad, writing off the other with silent treatment is worse, but to be treated as a total idiot whose opinions are not worth listening to, is the worst of all.
Jesus does not say this but we might add that God's love never writes us off in any of these three murderous ways.
5:23-24 An essential part of life in the Messianic kingdom is that we immediately deal with any of these three murderous attitudes, especially if the other person senses our hatred, silent treatment, or despising mockery. There is no point in seeking to bribe God by religious observances to avoid a loving reconciliation.
5:25-26 This principle also applies to litigation, which
inevitably ends badly for both parties. There are better ways for matters
to be settled in the kingdom (as in 18:10-17). But this does not mean we
allow ourselves to get walked over by ruthless enemies (see under 5:43-44).
5:27 All societies have rules to protect a marriage relationship. Even couples who live common law, with no written law to bind them, usually find it unacceptable if a partner lies, and cheats, and has an affair on the side.
5:28 This text has often been used by preachers to create guilt. But since God designed us to find others attractive mere admiration cannot be sinful. To use a modern example, Joe goes to Chicago on a business trip, enjoys lunch with an attractive buyer, but loves his wife and has no intention of being unfaithful. Jim also has lunch with an attractive buyer, decides to seduce her if he can, but cannot do it because he discovers her husband has a gun and shot the previous guy. Jack has a lunch with an attractive buyer, and gets to bed her that afternoon. Jack has committed legal adultery, but from God's point of view Jim "has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Joe was attracted and tempted, but there was no decision to commit adultery.
5:29-30 In aiming a bow the arrow is put on the bow string, it is pulled back with the right hand, then the left eye is closed, and the right eye looks along the arrow at the target. In the previous verse Jack let fly his adulterous arrow. But Jim was equally adulterous when he had already taken aim on the woman. Joe found the person attractive, and may have been tempted to picture adultery, but he never took aim unfaithfully.
Here tearing out the right eye and cutting off the right hand is obviously not a literal call to blind and maim oneself. It is a powerful metaphor of turning away from the intention to commit adultery. In other parts of the New Testament the strength to do this is by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In both verses the word "hell" is an unhelpful translation for the Greek word Gehenna, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, or the Valley of Hinnom (see 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33). This was the awful rubbish dump over the south wall of Jerusalem. It has now filled, but it used to burn from the cinders on a dry day or be filled with maggots on a wet day. Being thrown into Gehenna was therefore a common metaphor for being trashed. But Gehenna never meant the hell of eternal damnation.
5:31 The Old Testament law of divorce allowed a man to divorce his wife by giving her a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1). Matthew will later explain that when Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason, his answer was that the one flesh relationship of Genesis 1:27 should not be broken up (Matthew 19:3-6). But the law of Moses did allow divorce "because you were so hard-hearted" (19:8).
Jesus explains that a man divorcing a woman "causes her to commit adultery." Obviously an innocent woman being divorced does not cause her to be an adulteress. As so often in Jesus' teaching we must catch the metaphorical meaning. When a woman is divorced there is an inevitable adulteration of her marriage expectation. Divorce therefore causes her adulteration.
Jesus makes an exception "on the ground of unchastity" (v.32) which suggests that if adultery has already taken place the marriage has already been adulterated.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is dealing with the very one-sided patriarchal right of the man to divorce his wife by merely giving her "a certificate of divorce." When Paul writes about marriage and divorce he writes in terms of total mutuality between the man and the woman (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). And it is hard to imagine where a Pharisaic rabbi could have learned this liberated view of marriage except from Jesus' disciples.
Paul sees no difficulty with allowing a divorce if the unbelieving partner wishes to terminate the relationship (1 Corinthians 7:15). Here it seems that Paul is not thinking of whether or not the other partner has made a decision to believe in the past. What counts is if "she consents to live with him" or "if he consents to live with her" (1 Corinthians 7:12-13). It seems reasonable to interpret this to mean that if a man is continually drunk and violent, abuses the children, is adulterous, or in other ways destroys the family home, the consent to live together has already been terminated. A woman must in these circumstances defend herself and the children. Obviously the family is no longer a functioning marriage (as defined by the tenfold mutuality of 1 Cor. 7:1-16).
Put in modern terms we can say that any divorce is an adulteration of the original intent of the marriage. One or both parties have failed, and the sad result is the adulteration of what should have been a happy relationship. But that is a statement of fact, not a reason for blame, or excommunication, or permanent exclusion from service in the kingdom.
5:33-37 This is not a reference to bad language, but to the practice of making a vow to God (Deuteronomy 23:23). It may also refer to the third of the ten commandments, which prohibits the hypocrisy of taking God's name in vain to make others believe what you say (Exodus 20:7). We may not understand the types of oath Jesus' hearers had used (5:34-36), but in any case swearing is not needed for citizens of the kingdom whose yes or no should be sufficient (5:37).
5:38-39 "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" was the principle which Old Testament judges were meant to have in mind where compensation was required (Leviticus 24:19-20). There is apparently not one case in Jewish history when a literal eye or tooth was gouged out under this law. What a judge had to do was evaluate what the loss of an eye or tooth was worth to the injured person, and make the one responsible pay accordingly.
But rather than rushing to obtain compensation Jesus recommends turning the other cheek. A backhanded slap on a person's right cheek was not designed to hurt the other but it was viewed as a terrible insult and a good reason to sue the person.
5:40-41 Similarly petty litigation to force one to give up a garment was best dealt with by graciously offering one's cloak. Roman soldiers had the right to force anyone to carry their pack for a mile. Rather than angrily objecting to this, offering to go an extra mile was the best way of dealing with this abuse.
5:42 We may not always give what a child, or a maniac, or a drunk asks us to give. But each person can at least be given respect, and a concern to meet their genuine needs.
5:43 The principle of loving one's neighbor was already in the Old Testament law. "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
5:44 Jesus goes further to teach us love for our enemies. This does not mean allowing national or personal enemies to walk over us. We can defend ourselves as best as we can and still love the enemy as a person. And we can certainly pray for the person.
5:45 That is the way God is. He does not withhold the sun or the rain from his enemies.
5:46-47 In all societies, even among thieves, it is an accepted fact that you love those who love you.
5:48 The message of this first chapter in the Sermon on the Mount is that the perfect love of heaven is different in every way. And that is what the Messianic kingdom is about.