Since Jesus explained in Matthew 5.17, by using a well known Hebrew idiom, that He came to explain, and correctly interpret, ‘the Law and the Prophets’…….perhaps we might ask how He did it?
Jesus introduces His explanation in Matthew 5.19-20:
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these Commandments (in the Torah/ the Law of Moses), and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds (= excels/is better than) the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, (which includes the observance of their self invented extra laws) you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
He contrasts ‘your righteousness’ with ‘the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees’. Matthew’s reporting of His teaching is a very abbreviated précis, and his report assumes that those who read will understand:
1. What ‘righteousness’ was….and is.
The definition of ‘righteousness’ is given in Deuteronomy 6:25:
Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these Commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.’
Therefore, ‘righteousness’ is observing all these Commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.
The problem was and is….how do we practically live our lives in His way, and with what attitude?
2. Jesus is about to explain, by using 5 separate illustrations, the difference between the correct understanding of ‘righteousness’ and what ‘the Scribes and Pharisees’ understood and taught about ‘righteousness’.
‘The Scribes and Pharisees’ were convinced that the Commandments of the LORD were vitally important, and to break a Commandment had serious consequences. Therefore, to protect and prevent people from breaking any of the LORD’s Commandments in the Torah, ‘the Scribes and Pharisees’ invented additional commandments of their own that were intended to act as an early warning system to prevent the breaking of one of the LORD’s Commandments.
The early warning system operated in 4 areas:
1. (Rabbinic) Halacha:
These are laws that have been fixed as a result of a manipulated interpretation of the Tanach based upon Rabbinic logic.
In Shabbat 119b: A rule that when one prays on Erev Shabbat and then recites, ‘and thus the heavens and the earth were finished’, one’s iniquity is taken away and one’s sin is purged.
These laws are built on the axiom ‘minhag Yisrael torah hi’ = ‘a custom in Israel is Torah’.
In Pesachim 7b: The Rabbis made a custom that one must wait until three stars appear in the evening sky before concluding an observance of a Sabbath. This effectively extended the Sabbath to 25 hours.
In contrast, Nehemiah fixed the observance in line with the local sunset conditions:
…at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Nehemiah 13.19
These laws were new decrees added to the Torah with the authority of the Oral Law, but without any Scriptural justification or authority. The ‘takanot’ are a clear violation of Deuteronomy 4.2 & 12.32:
You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it… Deuteronomy 4.2
Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it. Deuteronomy 12.32
In Shabbat 44a: R.Meir ruled: All lamps may be moved, except a lamp which was lit on the Sabbath; if it is extinguished, it may be moved; but a cup, dish, or glass lantern may not be stirred from its place.
These laws refer to the practical observance of Torah according to Rabbinic Judasim. Each ma’asei was derived from stories, incidents, or actions of individual Rabbis as the source for the new law (ma’asei), often introduced with the phrase, ‘Once it happened’.. These laws were NOT derived from the Tanach.
In Berachot 2a: Once it happened those of Gamaliel came home (late) from a wedding feast and they said to him, We have not yet recited the (evening) sh’ma. He said to them, ‘If the dawn has not yet come up you are still bound to recite’. And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but whenever the Sages say until midnight, the precept may be performed until the dawn comes up.
I have quoted these examples from Avi Ben Mordechai's Commentary on Galatians, which I warmly recommend to you.
These examples would be laughable in the way that they twist and manipulate the Biblical texts…..but, tragically, they are not laughable because they have governed the behaviour of Orthodox Jews for the last 2000 years.
A recognition and understanding of these legal terms is essential in order to understand the Sermon on the Mount and the conflict in the Gospels between Jesus and ‘the Scribes and Pharisees’.
This is why Jesus began His expalnation of 'the Law and the Prophets' by saying:
unless your righteousness exceeds (= excels/is better than) the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, (which includes the observance of their self invented extra laws) you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Until next week…..when we will look at His 5 illustrations.