It’s fairly typical to treat the Sermon on the Mount as a simple case of law vs grace.
On this view, the impossibly high moral standard Jesus lays out functions merely to reveal our wretchedness and drive us to the foot of the cross. There, grace trumps the strict demands of justice because God forgives us, refusing to punish us as law-breakers.
Problem is, this seems to run aground against Jesus’ own words about how his teaching fulfils the law (rather than abolishing it).
But how? How does Jesus fulfil the law?
It’s a question that gets sharpened as the Sermon on the Mount unfolds. Because a lot of the time it sounds a lot like Jesus is setting aside the law.
That’s certainly what it sounds like when it comes to the infamous lex talionis in (Matthew 5.38-42):
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Isn’t Jesus flat out contracting an explicit Old Testament command? One found no less than three times God’s own law — in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19 to be precise.
How is this a case of fulfilling the law?
The key lies in the purpose of the command in its Old Testament context.
It’s aim is not to provide a permissive minimum standard for punishment, licensing bloodthirsty revenge. Rather, it’s aim is twofold:
- To elevate retribution from a personal vendetta-type thing to something embedded within public legal processes.
- And to set a maximum limit on punishment so as to arrest the natural cycle of tit-for-tat in which the ante is always upped and opponents are treated not as persons but as obstacles to be swept away.
Jesus knew this. And he also knew the ways in which this was being twisted — and its potential loopholes exploited — by the legal experts of the day.
So Jesus outlines a new and more radical way to achieve the law’s goal:
“Don’t resist evildoers”, Jesus says. “Instead, expose their wickedness. Refuse to play their game. And break the circuit of violence.” (This, I take it, is what Jesus has in mind by the examples he gives of active non-resistance in verses 40-42 — he’s not talking about being a doormat.)
And this is a long way from pitting law against grace.