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Two measures of righteousness — the old and the new


"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Mat. 5:17-20).

This following part of the Sermon on the Mount, which goes up to the end of the 5th chapter of the Gospel from Matthew, is devoted to explaining what true love is. For clarity, the Lord compared His teaching with the existing religious views among the Jews. The Jews, accustomed to hearing detailed discussions about rites and customs from the lips of their law teachers, might have thought that Jesus Christ was preaching a new faith running counter to the laws of Moses. The Lord Jesus Christ explains further on in His sermon that He is not preaching a new teaching, but revealing a much deeper meaning of the laws they already knew.

Because they did not possess the blessed restorative power, the Old Testament laws could not lead a person to perfection. It could not help a person overcome the evil within himself, but mainly drew a person’s attention to his acts. At the same time, the Old Testament laws had a negative character: "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness." The Old Testament law was powerless to renew the spiritual nature of a person. The very understanding of righteousness in that time was simplified. A person was considered righteous if he did not commit crude or obvious crimes, and observed the prescribed ritual laws; the scribes and Pharisees boasted of their thorough knowledge of all the ritual laws.

It is known that while the roots of a wild and harmful plant remain untouched, to cut off its branches only temporarily slows it down from spreading. Likewise, while the passions hold fast in a person — sin is unavoidable. It was for this that the Lord came into the world, to destroy the very roots of sin in a person, and to reestablish in him the image of God which had been tarnished. In the New Testament, the external and potentially ostentatious execution of the directives of the law appear inadequate, for God requires love from a pure heart.

The Lord Jesus Christ addresses this issue, speaking to the Jews: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Mat. 5:17). Further on, the Lord shows in metaphoric comparisons what the "fulfillment," or true implementation of the law consists of. The Lord dwells on those laws which forbid murder and the violation of marital fidelity, as well as the fact that the Jews considered oaths, revenge and hatred toward enemies admissible. The Lord shows them the superiority of perfect Christian love.

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Mat. 5:21-22). The sixth law of Moses forbade the taking of a person’s life. The Lord takes the idea of the sixth law deeper, and calls attention to the evil feelings which prod a person to kill, such as anger, malice and hatred. In essence, these unkind feelings urge a person to insult and demean his fellow human being. A Christian should restrain himself from any expression of malice against his fellow man, such as insults and humiliating words.

So that we do not hold malice in our hearts, the Lord calls us to forgive, and to hurry in reconciling ourselves with those who offend us: "Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou are in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing [i.e., small change]" (Mat. 5:23-26).

The Lord then pauses on the seventh Old Testament law, which states: "Do not commit adultery." He calls attention to those unclean feelings which give rise to marital infidelity and other physical sins: "But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mat. 5:27-28). In other words, the sins of adultery or dissipation arise in the heart of a person. For this reason, any sinful desires must be severed at their origin, so that they are not given the opportunity to take control of our thoughts and will.

The Lord, who sees the hearts of men, knows how difficult it is for a person to fight with carnal temptations. For this reason He teaches us to be decisive and ruthless toward ourselves when we see that someone or something is leading us to sin. "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Mat 5:29). This, of course, is metaphoric speech. It can be rephrased in this way: if anything (or anyone) is so dear to you as your own eye or hand, but it is tempting you, rid yourself of this thing decisively and stop all associations with the seducer. It is better to lose a friendship than to be deprived of eternal life.

After explaining how to fight sinful desires, the Lord pauses on the indissolubility of marriage. The Lord returns to this topic later in His discussion with the Sadducees, and explains that a mystery of God is fulfilled in marriage, in which two — husband and wife — become one flesh. For this reason, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mat. 19:6). In other words, no one has the right to grant a divorce between two people. Once the promises are given, the marital tie is completed. The spouses must then find a common ground and work out their differences.

The Lord then returns to the theme of anger. He pauses on one of the varieties of this passion, revenge, which the Jews had made lawful. For overcoming it the Lord gives Christians the weapon of love, saying thus:

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Mat. 5:38-48).

While it permitted revenge, the Old Testament law did in fact try to limit it. In the event that one person willingly or accidentally caused another some physical harm, the law did not permit the injured man to repay evil to the offender without limits. The law tried to limit revenge by "repaying in kind": for a lost eye, an eye; for a tooth — a tooth; and so on. During the times of Moses, the law limiting revenge was very timely, for without it revenge exceeded all boundaries; the person who accidentally caused someone a loss or injury found himself in danger of receiving any injury from the angry party. However, limiting revenge did not resolve the main issue: eradicating animosity between people completely.

The Lord gives us the opportunity to eradicate animosity at its very outset. Toward this goal, He orders us to forgive offenders and to refuse to enter into mundane arguments with people. "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." Just as fire cannot be extinguished by fire, anger cannot be rooted out by revenge. The only weapon against evil is love. Perhaps a fellow man will not immediately come to his senses from our condescension. We have submitted physically but are victorious spiritually; for this victory we must thank God — it is an eternal victory.

Of course, with the words "resist not evil," Christ did not teach us to submit to evil, to accept its right to citizenship — as Leo Tolstoy cunningly misinterprets these words of Christ. Here the Lord only prohibits settling scores for personal motives. In instances where there is a direct violation of the laws of God, and in particular, when there arises a temptation for the faithful because of this, the Lord orders us to fight evil, saying: "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault... If he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more ... witnesses ... And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Mat. 18:15-17). This is to say that one must try to make a sinner understand his error. If, however, the person is so numb in his sin that he will not give in to any admonitions, then one must cut off all contact with him. The Lord does not give the Church any other weapon against the rebellious but banishment and excommunication.

In concluding His teaching about overcoming all enmity and vengeance, the Lord shows us what the highest expression of love is. The Old Testament law is not devoid of the understanding of love, but limits its to relations with those near (Lev. 19:17-18). The scribes cunningly supplemented the order to love those near to you with the permission to hate those who are not near, especially enemies. The Lord explains that love toward those who are near is so elementary that even sinners are capable of it. A more perfect love is expected from a Christian, and the Lord says: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:43-45).

In this manner we see how the Lord, teaching us to overcome all the forms of anger, gradually raises the thoughts of a person higher and higher, bringing them nearer to imitating the unlimited love of the Heavenly Father. Love has many forms and hues of expression. The most elementary expression of love is to prevent hatred among people, then — to overcome the desire of vengeance and to make efforts to forgive those who offend us. Later, higher forms of love appear as meek patience which endures unpleasantness from people, and giving help to those whom we do not like. Finally, we are brought to the highest forms of love: the feeling of sympathy for our enemies, love toward them, prayer for them and desiring good for them. An example of such perfect love was shown by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, when he prayed for his persecutors on the Cross.

Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord raises the Christian to the peak of righteousness: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect!" (Mat. 5:48) Here is the ideal, here the highest goal of a Christian — to resemble His Heavenly Father! At the same time, the Christian must remember that he rises to perfection not through his own efforts alone, but mainly with the assistance of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

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