Interpreting Matthew 5:17-20 (one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels)
It is difficult to know how much of this passage, if any, originated with Jesus and how much is to be attributed to the author/redactor of the Gospel. Either way, it’s in our sacred text and we are faced with the task of making sense of these words from Matthew’s Jesus.
What is Matthew’s Jesus saying? The most obvious reading is that Matthew’s Jesus takes a strict view of the Jewish law. But how then can this text be reconciled with a text like Matt. 12:1-8, where Jesus clearly disregards Sabbath law, offering as justification an example from the life of David where David clearly violates the Torah requirements regarding the sacred bread in the holy place? The tensions/contradictions these differing responses to the Jewish law create are not easily resolved.
What may have prompted the writer in 5:17-20 to be so insistent (or so over-the-top) on the continued validity of the Jewish law?
Part of the answer is that he is preparing the way for the antitheses that come next in the Sermon on the Mount where he contrasts, “You have heard that it was said” with Jesus’ “But I say to you.”
Then, too, maybe some in Matthew’s community/church were pushing for the abrogation and abolishment of the Torah all together and Matthew pushes back (overreacts?).
Matthew insists that the law still has validity and must be respected, and that Jesus as the divinely inspired interpreter of the law, has come to “fulfill” the law rather than “abolish” it (5:17).
What does it mean for Jesus to “fulfill” the law? It’s very ambiguous. It could mean that Jesus “adds” to the law, or “obeys” the law, or “confirms/establishes” the law, or “completes/perfects” the law, or “reduces” the law to the supreme command to love. Maybe all these ideas are intended or a combination of them.
Matthew’s main general point seems to be (regardless of the precise meaning) is that Jesus is not in any way opposed to the law; he ministered squarely within the tradition of the Torah.
I like to think of Jesus “fulfilling” the law in the sense that Jesus fulfilled, completed, perfected the law’s divine intent, namely, to create a righteous community—a community right with God, each other, and all creation. Jesus demonstrated the true spirit of the law.
The problem is that in fulfilling the law Matthew’s Jesus shows little concern for the “strokes and letters” of the law emphasized in 5:18. For all practical purposes in some cases “fulfilling” the law meant abolishing the law (see 5:38-42).
Other passages in Matthew such as 19:16-22; 22:34-40; and 23:23-24 add to our understanding of how Matthew’s Jesus fulfills the law. Jesus invited the rich young man, who had kept the commandments all his life, to a deeper allegiance and commitment by giving all his wealth to the poor and following him. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on loving God and loving neighbor as oneself. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law” like “justice and mercy and faith,” while meticulously keeping laws of tithing.
The last example above can be employed as a guide for interpreting Matt. 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
However we make sense of Matt. 5:17-20 certainly Matthew’s Jesus had great respect for the Torah. Jesus “fulfills” the intent and spirit of the Torah aimed at creating a righteous community.
It’s interesting that in Matt. 1:19 Joseph is called “righteous” because he did not carry out the letter of the law. Joseph was “righteous” in disobeying the law, which demonstrates that sometimes particular laws can stand in direct opposition to the overall aim, intent, and spirit of the law. No interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20 can resolve all these tensions.
One way to read Matt. 5:17-20 in a contemporary context, though it is very unlikely that the author would have intended this, is to read 5:18-19 in light of Jesus’ “fulfillment.” Since Jesus “fulfilled”—“accomplished” or completed the intent of the law—the law now in effect is the law of love that Jesus taught and embodied in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. The “commandments” referenced in 5:19 are Jesus’ teachings/commandments.
Or a slightly different version of the above reading makes the law in 5:18 the law of love that will be “accomplished”—realized fully—in the kingdom to come.
We can also draw the following analogy: It’s important for disciples of Jesus today to respect the totality of Scripture, even the parts that have no authority in our lives. It is clear, in light of the revelation of God’s will in Christ, that there are Scriptures that are inadequate, deficient, and stand in direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus. Their teaching value is in showing us how people of faith can misunderstand and deviate from God’s will, how faithful people can regress and completely miss what is redemptive and transformative. Even regressive laws and Scriptures serve a purpose.
What is starkly clear in this text, regardless of the difficulties in reading it, is that Jesus is our guide. Disciples of Jesus do not look to the Torah, they look to Jesus, and in particular, the Sermon on the Mount delivered by Matthew’s Jesus. What matters to Jesus must be what matters to us—his disciples.