In Jesus’s time the Law had a sacredness and a saving value, and for most Jews it was the definitive revelation of God. Those who swore by this were the Scribes and Pharisees. Matthew’s Gospel, and particularly the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, attempts to present Jesus’s attitude to the Law in the context of the early Jewish community.
Jesus states that his mission was not to repudiate the Law and call it into question, but to fulfil it, or to bring it to perfection. What does this perfection consist in?
It consists in a relationship of trust and love with Jesus, whom the Father has sent – and not in the material fulfilling of whatever the Law demands. Paul expresses this eloquently later in the New Testament, when he says that the ‘righteousness’ given by the Law does not bring salvation, but ‘faith in Jesus’ does. The Sermon on the Mount therefore challenges the disciple to live by a higher standard than that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
The examples given in today’s Gospel relate to the desire for revenge and retaliation.
The first example re-casts the law of vendetta, one of the most ancient tribal laws, enacted to protect the weak and vulnerable from casual injustice. Vendetta demanded that in the case of an injury committed upon someone, the nearest relative was obliged to seek compensation, whether in kind or in money. The Mosaic law actually emphasized a due proportion for the injury suffered. But Jesus says simply, “Do not resist the man who wrongs you.” Forgive, and give up your right to hit back. Accept the physical violence against oneself, even if it is unjust.
The second example has to do with legal compensation. “If a man sues you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well.” Not only is the disciple told not to claim what is his, but he is asked to go further and yield something extra, more than what is required.
The same with forced labour, and with loans and requests for gifts. Give more than what is expected of you.
Are the counsels of Jesus impractical and exaggerated? We will never know, because they have never been tried. The Christian world has never been ready to live by this ethic, and is not ready even today. How changed would the world be, were Jesus’s words put into practice? We can only hope and dream.