The new righteousness

A sermon preached to Chelmsford Cathedral Fellowship Group.

Context: The context for the ‘antitheses; is provided by the previous section where Jesus has been talking about the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5.17-20) which ends with the words: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5.21). Jesus sets out a new way of living, which demands something far more radical than Moses.

Jesus goes beyond the demands of the Old Testament law and the way in which that law had been interpreted by the scribes and Pharisees. RT France in The Gospel of Matthew 197 says that the new righteousness of which Jesus speaks may be characterised in four different ways:

1. It promotes an ‘inward’ concern with motive and attitude about the ‘outward’ focus on the visible and quantifiable observance of regulations
2. It goes behind specific rules to look for the more far-reaching principles which should govern the conduct of the people of God
3. It is concerned not so much with the negative goal of the avoidance of specific sins but with the far more demanding positive goal of discovering and following what is really the will of God for his people
4. It substitutes for what is in principle a 100% achievable righteousness (the avoidance of breaking a definable set of regulations) a totally open-ended ideal (being “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) which will always remain beyond the grasp of the most committed disciple.
Jesus gives six examples of the new righteousness:

1. Murder (5.21-26): The Law said, ‘No murder’, but I say, ‘No anger’
2. Adultery (5.27-30): The Law said, ‘No adultery’, but I say ‘No lustful thoughts’
3. Divorce (5.31-32): The Law said ‘Divorce on condition’, but I say ‘No divorce’
4. Swearing (5.33-37): The Law said, ‘No false swearing’, but I say ‘No swearing at all’
5. Retaliation (5.38-42): The Law said, ‘Eye for eye’, but I say ‘No retaliation at all’
6. Love (5.43-48): The Law said, ‘Love your neighbour’, but I say ‘Love your enemy’

Are these six unrelated examples – or is there a connection? Underlying the first, fifth antithesis and sixth antithesis is the primacy of love. It has been suggested that ultimately love underlies all six!


One sermon: It is possible that originally these ‘antitheses’ formed one sermon – which Matthew then subsequently expanded with other sayings of Jesus. The kernel was probably six brief antitheses comprising vv21-22a; 27-28; 31-32, 33-34a; 38-39a; 43-44a. Today preachers need to preach at least six sermons to unpack the one sermon!

You have heard that it was said
The formula with which Jesus’ demand is made is unvarying: “But I say to you”.
The other side of the contrast varies from the full formula “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times” (vv21,33) to the more abbreviated forms “You have heard that it was said” (vv27, 28,43) and even simply “It was said” (v31). However, there is no discernible difference between the different introductions.

At first sight it would see that Jesus is contrasting his new way of living with the Law of Moses. But if that were so, then it would seem to contradict his words found in Matt 5.17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets”.
However, a closer study suggests that Jesus is not setting himself up over against the Law of Moses as such, but rather the way in which the Law had been interpreted. Jesus is giving the right interpretation of the Law – and in so doing he intensifies and deepens the Law

But I say to you; The most important point to notice is that Jesus is setting himself and his new righteousness over against Moses and the old righteousness. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus speaks with a new authority. Inevitably we ask ourselves: who is this Jesus?

A new way of living – not a new set of laws

It is often suggested that Matthew is depicting Jesus as the new Moses. As Moses went up a mountain to receive the Law as enshrined in the 10 commandments, so Jesus goes up a mountain (5.1) to gives to his followers a new Law as enshrined in these six antitheses. However, the assumption behind the concept of laws is that with due care and attention it should be possible for them to be kept, but Jesus’ commands as we find them in the antitheses are beyond ‘due care and attention’. See A.M. Hunter, Design for Life 49:

“No anger, no lust, no swearing, no retaliation – who can rise to the height of these demands? If our salvation depends on our perfect keeping of these ‘laws’, we are all doomed to be damned, and Christ is laying on his disciples a burden far heavier than the scribes and Pharisees did on theirs. This cannot be legislation. To be sure, this is how God means men [and women] to live; but though all who call themselves Christ’s disciples must try to live according to this pattern, none of us who live in a fallen world dare claim ‘All these have I kept’. More clearly than any other part of the Sermon, these verses at once declare the Christian moral ideal and convict us of our sin. We may, with Paul, give thanks to God that we are saved not by law but by grace”


1. Anger is destructive of others

v21: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment'”.

Cannibals apart, it is a universally recognised fact: killing people is wrong. However much your husband/wife provokes you, it just isn’t right to thrust a bread-knife through his/her heart. True, society tends to distinguish between one kind of killing and another: a ‘crime of passion’ tends to merit a shorter sentence than a terrorist act. But whether it be the bomb or the breadknife, it still is wrong. Furthermore, there are some categories of killing which we tend not to define as murder: for many people capital punishment and killing of people in war is not covered by the 6th commandment. However we are all agreed on the general principle: killing people is wrong. With reason God say “You shall not kill” – or as NRSV puts it: “You shall not murder”.

But Jesus goes much further than simply affirming the validity of the 6th commandment
v22: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire”. Jesus intensifies the prohibition contained in 6th commandment. Not just killing people is wrong – being angry is wrong too. Angry thoughts and insulting words are tantamount to murder in God’s sight. That’s a pretty startling thought! Why, each one of us is guilty

2. Ultimately anger is destructive of us!

Jesus sees anger as ultimately being destructive of ourselves too. If we constantly blow our gasket, we too shall be liable to divine retribution. We may well end up in what Jesus calls “the hell of fire”.
i. Angry thoughts

v22a: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment”. In AV we find the addition “without a cause”. These words occur in most Greek MSS, but not in the best. Almost certainly a later gloss, added by some Christian scribe – yet probably a correct interpretation of the mind of Jesus. For not all anger is evil.
• There were times when Jesus was angry: e.g. when he drove the traders from the temple, he was angry that through their corrupt trade they were profaning God’s holy temple – and making it impossible for the Gentiles to pray to the true God. Jesus was justifiably angry.
• God himself can be angry e.g. Paul tells us in Rom 1.18: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth”. Paul wasn’t talking of God getting into a paddy, but of God being justifiably angry with those who fail to honour him, and who as a result go on to flout his holy laws and end up ruining the lives of many others. Luther called this righteous anger of God “an anger of love, one that wishes no one any evil, one that is friendly to the person, but hostile to sin”. There were times when my children were growing up that I could be angry with them, but the fact that I could be angry with them did not mean that I did not love them. So God’s wrath is directed against our sin, and yet he loves us.

There are times when we too should show righteous anger
• we should be concerned for those who are exploited
• we should be roused against the injustices of this world
Unfortunately all too often we are not angry. But this is no sign of virtue – it is the very opposite. It is a sign that we don’t care, that we do not love.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was not talking of those times when we are angry on someone else’s behalf, but of those times when we are angry on our own behalf – when we blow our top because our pride/vanity has been wounded…

The Greeks had two words for anger
• Thumos is like the flame, which comes when dried straw is set alight – it blazes up very quickly and then just as quickly dies down. That is not the word used here
• Orge is long-lived anger – and that is the word used here. It is the anger of people who nurse their wrath to keep it; the anger over which we brood and will not allow to die; the anger which says: “I’ll never forget…I’ll never forgive”; the anger which looks out for the worst – and not surprisingly always finds it!

Jesus says: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment” I.e. to the judgment of God. The anger that we have will ultimately rebound upon us and destroy us. That surely is a sombre thought. What kind of relationship do we have with members of our family? with member of the wider family of the church? with members of the community in general? Is there someone whom we have yet to truly forgive? (and forget?)

ii. Insulting words

v22b: “And if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire”
Nobody is really sure what distinction there is, if any, between these two clauses.
• GNB: “Whoever calls his brother ‘You good-for-nothing’ will be brought before the Council, and whoever calls his brother a worthless fool will be in danger of going to the fire of hell”
• NEB: “If he abuses his brother he must answer for it to the court; if he sneers at him he will have to answer for it in the fires of hell”
The general sense is clear: whoever insults their brother/sister is a murderer in God’s sight!

Perhaps at this stage some of us feel not too bad. We may at times get angry inside, but we don’t often go round calling people “fools” and “good-for-nothings” But is this because we do not have the guts to call them names to their face? The truth is that many of us call people names behind their backs. It is the kind of gossip that occurs over the garden-wall or down at the shops or even in church. “She’s stuck up” “He’s pretty narrow” “They’re …this/that”
Jesus says: those who gossip are as much as guilty of murder as anyone
Indeed, they are liable to the “hell of fire” – literally to the “gehenna” of fire. Gehenna was the place where Jerusalem’s rubbish was burnt – it was used by Jesus as also by his contemporaries as a metaphor for the place of ultimate punishment. Those of you who gossip God will dump you well and truly in the fire of hell. That too is a sobering thought!

3. If you are angry, make it up – now!

Picture no 1. vv23,24: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister and offer your gift”

Make it up! Otherwise your worship is a sham
• God will not accept the praise of those who do not order their lives according to his will.
• God doesn’t hear the prayers of those who are not in a right relationship with others.
• God doesn’t forgive those who don’t forgive those who sin against them
“First be reconciled to your brother & sister and offer your gift”

Jesus is disturbingly radical. He doesn’t say: “If you remember that you’ve something against your brother/sister”. Rather: “If you remember that your brother/sister has something against you”.
It is not sufficient for you to feel OK about your brother or sister. The question is: how does your brother or sister feel about you?

Picture no 2 adds urgency. Don’t delay – don’t leave it until next week – do something about it today – now!
vv25,26: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny”

At first sight Jesus appears to be giving some practical advice: make it up before the situation gets worse. A quarrel, if not healed immediately, can go on breed worse trouble. Bitterness breeds resentment. So make it up – before the situation gets worse. NB Eph 4.26; “Do not let the sun go down on your anger”. Eat humble pie and apologise – even if you feel you were in the right, take the 1st step toward healing the breach. When personal relationship go wrong, in 9 cases out of 10, immediate action will men them – but if immediate action not taken, then relationships will continue to deteriorate and will spread in ever widening circles

But Jesus may have had something more in mind: “Put things right with your fellows while life lasts, for some day – and you know not when – life will finish and you will stand before God, the judge of all” I.e. act while you are still at liberty. Settle the matter while it is still possible. Don’t allow anger to destroy you – or indeed destroy others. Sort things out now!

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