It’s not easy to correct the errors of your tradition. The absolute ‘No!’ that seems like the most radical course too often ends up preserving the underlying logic of what you’re trying to correct. (No one thinks more like a fundamentalist than an anti-fundamentalist.)
This is especially important for Christians to remember when interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ sharp oppositional rhetoric — ‘you have heard it said…but I tell you…’ — has emboldened well-intentioned Christian radicals since the earliest days of the church to hail Jesus as one who says just such an absolute ‘No!’ to all or part of the Old Testament.
Many progressive evangelicals point to the Sermon as the heart of a ‘Jesus-centered’ hermeneutic that justifies Christians in rejecting parts of the Law outright. They often make this point by quoting only the words ‘but I tell you’ — only the oppositional rhetoric of the Sermon. Greg Boyd cites Jesus ‘authoritative “But I say to you”‘ as proof that Jesus ‘repudiates’ and ‘refutes’ parts of the Law. Brian Zahnd offers another version of the same:
I don’t have to pretend that Jesus endorsed every depiction of God found in the Old Testament. Because Jesus did not!
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…”
Yet it has become increasingly clear to me that this ‘radical’ move is itself another version of that most conservative of reading practices: prooftexting. By ‘prooftexting’ I mean quoting a Scriptural text as if its meaning is self-evident and indisputable. A proof-texter tends to cite a verse as a knock-down argument; those who read differently must be blind, dishonest, or worse. (Notice how Zahnd portrays those who disagree with him as ‘pretending’).
Jesus uses the expression ‘But I tell you…’ six times in the Sermon — and as I will show, it means very different things in these different contexts. By quoting it in isolation, however, progressives imply that it always obviously means the same thing. And this is to prooftext.
But if this phrase means many things, then there is no single way Jesus corrects the tradition, no single ‘Jesus-centered’ hermeneutic that will solve all our problems in advance. Paradoxically, recognizing this is the truly disruptive possibility that Jesus holds out in the Sermon.
Without further ado, then, here are four meanings of the phrase ‘but I tell you’:
1. Extending Tradition
Jesus quotes one of the Ten Commandments together with a legal tradition about its enforcement: ‘You have heard it said, “Do not murder,” and whoever murders will be liable to judgment’ (Mt. 5:21). Far from showing any squeamishness about judgment, Jesus says ‘but I tell you’ to expand its scope: ‘whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment’ (Mt. 5:22). He cannot only have divine judgment in view because, in the next sentence, he explicitly mentions the Sanhedrin, a human court (Mt 5:22). Instead of repudiating the Law, it may be that Jesus expands upon the Sanhedrin’s traditional jurisdiction!
2. Discovering Relationships
After quoting the command against adultery, Jesus says, ‘But I tell you: anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mt. 5:28). Surely Jesus is not contradicting the command against adultery here. Instead, notice that the Greek word translated ‘lust’ is the same as the word for ‘covet,’ used to translate the commandment against ‘coveting your neighbor’s wife.’ Here, it seems, Jesus says ‘But I tell you’ to clarify the relationship between the commands against covetousness and adultery: engaging in the one leads inexorably down the road to the other. Lust is ‘adultery in the heart.’ (The NT frequently sees covetousness as the beginning of sinful acts: compare James 1:15, 4:2, and Romans 7:7.)
3. Defending a Particular Interpretation
When Jesus discusses divorce, he refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-5, the only legal text that directly addresses the issue. But this passage, which legislates that a man who divorces his wife may not remarry her once she has remarried, nowhere explicitly allows divorce — it simply presupposes that it will occur. Because of this, even Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries argued about when divorce is permitted as a matter of Law. The school of Hillel accepted divorce on most grounds; the school of Shammai prohibited it except in the case of adultery. Jesus agrees with Shammai. Moreover, this ruling can be justified as an interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, which says that the husband finds something ‘unseemly’ in his divorced wife (v. 1) and calls her ‘defiled’ (v. 4). So it may be that Jesus says ‘But I tell you’ to defend a particular legal interpretation.
Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies may go in the same category. Jesus quotes the command ‘love your neighbors,’ along with an interpretive gloss: ‘and hate your enemies’ (Mt. 5:43). This gloss may reflect an interpretation of the original verse: by specifically mentioning neighbors, does it not imply that enemies (the opposite of neighbors) should receive opposite treatment? Likewise when Jesus says, ‘But I tell you, love your enemies,’ he may be implying an alternative interpretation. Jesus implies as much elsewhere, when he offers the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, ‘who is my neighbor?’ (Luke 10:36).
4. A Higher Calling
Jesus’ teachings on vows and turning the other cheek are the most difficult cases. Here it is important to remember something progressive evangelicals often forget: even Biblical law is not morality. It orders a concrete social life and remains bound to particular institutions (courts, temple). Without challenging the legitimacy of these institutions, Jesus may be calling individuals to a perfection that goes beyond what the Law can reasonably presuppose in ordinary human beings. The Law permits making vows and requires one to fulfill them; Jesus says ‘but I tell you’ to demand that individuals live with complete truthfulness. So too, if we remember that ‘an eye for an eye’ is a legal penalty enforced by the court, then Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ may be read as an injunction to individuals or the church. This command goes far beyond what the Law presupposes, since it establishes ‘cities of refuge’ to which murderers could flee from avengers (Num. 35/Dt. 19). Jesus could be teaching: do not assume that because the Law presupposes private vengeance, you are permitted to seek it. Turn the other cheek; leave justice to the courts.
‘But I tell you’ makes a lousy prooftext; and its rhetorical opposition should not distract us from the variety of ways Jesus reads the Law: expanding on legal traditions, meditating on the relations between commands, defending particular interpretations of disputed texts, and discerning the highest ideals already implicit in the Law. If progressives really want to read Scripture like Jesus, let them imitate these things. For if Jesus is as radical as progressives rightly believe he is, their absolute ‘No!’ to parts of the Old Testament may be a good deal less radical than it seems.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.