Samuel Goldwyn was Hollywood’s answer to Yogi Berra (even though Goldwyn was born first).  As a movie producer, he was very, very successful; but as a speaker, few people were better at being more incomprehensible. So, if you are looking for a good oxymoron, look no further. Goldwyn is reported to have said the following:

  1. “Include me out.”
  2. “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.”
  3. “If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive!”
  4. “Spare no expense to save money on this one.”
  5. “We’re overpaying him, but he’s worth it.”
  6. “I read part of it all the way through.”
  7. I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.”

Scholars have called the list of sayings in Matthew 5 the antitheses (also called “the oppositions”). Six times, Jesus says something along the lines, “You have heard it said such and such, but I say unto you this and that!” Now, for some readers, these sayings sound like oxymorons because they sound like Jesus wants to do one thing, but ends up doing the exact opposite (just like when Goldwyn said, “Our comedies are not to be laughed at!”). Six times, Jesus seeks to draw a clear line of division between the Old and New Testaments and establish a law and spirit distinction (or perhaps more accurately, a works and grace contrast). And six times, Jesus fails miserably and ends up actually intensifying the Old Testament law (we do the same thing; we intend to say one thing, but end up conveying the exact opposite; for instance, Goldwyn once told two actors “to stand closer apart.”). Now, others read this passage with a focus not on the actual laws that Jesus is talking about, but on the God who gave the laws. They believe the contrast here is between the Old Testament God (who is harsh, vengeful and demanding) and the New Testament God (a God of love, grace and mercy).  Nowhere is this dichotomy as clear as in the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” ethic that focuses on revenge and Jesus’ words to “turn the other cheek” in Matthew 5:39. But that is what an “antithesis” does. It sets up a contrast. 

But as antitheses go, Matthew 5 is not an Olympic champion. It is clear that in Matthew 5, Jesus is not contrasting the Old Testament with the New (whether that be the laws contained in each or the picture of God they both hold). Instead, Jesus says (Mt. 5:17):

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Now, exactly what Jesus means here is the subject of great debate. Many scholars argue that fulfill means “to complete” or to “draw out the full implications,” but Matthew uses the word in a different sense. He seems to be arguing that Jesus fulfilled all that the Torah anticipated, predicted and taught. There is a sense in which the law (with all of its rules and regulations) was actually “prophesying” of Jesus in much the same way as Micah 5:2 (“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah . . .”) prophesied where Jesus the Messiah would be born. Two more examples might be needed. In Matthew, it is clear that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was fulfilling Israel’s time of temptation in the wilderness and the Holy Family’s return to the land upon Herod’s death fulfilled the exodus and Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”). In other words, in the eyes of the New Testament, the Torah was never simply a collection of laws. Instead of legislating holiness, its purpose was to point to Jesus as its fulfillment. Or as Levine and Brettler in their book, The Bible With and Without Jesus, say, 

“According to Matthew, Jesus – not just by his teachings but also by his life – shows the complete meaning of Israel’s scriptures.”

Now, if that is true, that raises an important question: when interpreting the Old Testament, do we start with Jesus and work backwards, or do we start with the Old Testament and work forward (or to say it another way, if the New Testament has the ‘right’ answer, do we really need to worry about the Old?)? Maybe, what we need is a test case. Let’s use Matthew 5:38-41.

Now, part of the difficulty in interpreting Jesus’ words here is our preconception. We come to this passage expecting Jesus to make things easier by lowering the standards of the law. Unfortunately, for us, what we find is that it intensifies the law. No longer is the command simply, “do not murder”; instead, in Jesus’ economy, he calls us not even to be angry. No longer is the command simply, “do not commit adultery”; instead, in Jesus’ economy, he calls us not to lust after anyone. As a result, many feel that we have mislabeled this section. These are not antitheses. If they were, then when Jesus said (Mt. 5:27-28), “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” he would have followed it with, “But I tell you if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Now that is an antithesis! But the things we read in the first half of Matthew 5, aren’t! 

But what about verses 38-41? There, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Now at first glance, this looks like a true antithesis. The Old Testament argues for vengeance, but Jesus argues for turning the other cheek. Take that, Old Testament! But when we look carefully at the text in the Old Testament, we get a different picture. Instead of finding retribution for a wrong done to someone, we find an unexpected call for justice.  Let me explain. The expression “an eye for an eye” is found in three places in the Old Testament: Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:17-20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. But instead of encouraging vengeance, the point of each of these passages is to create a response that is just and fair. The Leviticus passage brings this out the best, but it is the context of all three passages. Leviticus 24 says:

“Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.”

Again, note that these verses are not promoting bigger and “better” reprisals, but are seeking to limit the response so that the punishment always fits the crime. Leviticus won’t allow me to burn down your house and kill all your sheep just because you punched out my tooth. I may want to, but Leviticus won’t allow it. But we often misread this passage by thinking that God is approving of our lust for revenge. But that is not how the original audience would have understood it. This is not an approval of revenge, but the setting of a restraint. My response must be just and fair and cannot go beyond the crime.  Why? Because the Old Testament is not about retribution, but about justice and fairness and what is right. Now, if you are like me, you have heard someone say multiple times that they believe in the Old Testament God, a God who gets even, a God who believes in an eye for an eye. But now we see that the Old Testament God is not a vengeful God, but a God of justice and fairness. 

But there is something else we need to see here. Scot McKnight writes:

“The impact of the law is clear: justice requires retribution [notice the words, “is to be injured,” underlined above]. But the retribution is limited, but equal to, the original injury. This principle of equal retribution curbs violence and prevents vengeance from spinning out of control.”

According to the Old Testament, justice requires two things. It requires punishment, and it requires that the punishment does not exceed the crime. Note especially, the preface to Deuteronomy 19:21:

“Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Does that strike you as strange – that in a passage demanding justice, that there is also a command to show no pity in the execution of that justice? There is no way around it: According to the Old Testament, justice must be done. Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same way. The only stipulation is that the punishment must fit the crime perfectly. It must not exceed the crime, and it must not minimize it.  

Two quick notes here. It is clear that the Old Testament assumes that any attempt at punishing an offender will be overseen by a group of elders who will guarantee fairness. I can’t imagine if you knocked out my tooth, that I could simply appear at your house, show the gaping hole in my mouth and have you stand there while I knocked out one of your teeth (and what happens if I accidentally miss and knock out two of your teeth? Do you get to take another shot and knock out another one of my teeth?) It would get confusing, and that is why it is clear that someone (the elders? a judge? a member of the royal court?) should oversee these events to make sure everything is done in a proper way.  

Second, interestingly, over time, instead of requiring an eye for an eye, financial compensation was allowed. If I lost a tooth, it was no longer legally necessary for a judge to remove one of your teeth. You could pay cash for my lost tooth (historically, this is the origin for why parents leave money under their children’s pillows for their “lost” teeth). But no matter how the compensation was rendered back then, the point was clear: there was to be no leniency. Justice demanded retribution, and justice was always required. Truth is also required. It is true. I just made up that whole story about the origin of the tooth fairy.

But then Jesus enters into the discussion and seemingly turns justice on its head and says:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

Is this our first real antithesis? Is Jesus driving a wedge between justice and mercy? Is Jesus ignoring the Old Testament? No matter how we look at it, one thing is clear. We have to start with the Old Testament and understand what it is saying in its original context, before we can understand what Jesus is doing with it. There is no shortcut. You can’t start with Jesus and then read back into the Old Testament his meaning because you may be distorting what he is doing with that passage. But by starting with the Old, you can see much more clearly how Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament and not abrogating it. I hope you will agree with me on that, but if not, please remember these words from Samuel Goldwyn: “I’m willing to admit that I may not always be right, but I am never wrong.”

More next week!