A reflection on the core teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-48; Luke 6:28-36:
By: Robert D Brinsmead
Jesus knew that his teaching was new, and his critics knew that it was new. It is of great interest that many have pointed to certain features of his sayings to indicate what was new, but they have missed the mark.
It has sometimes been said that his concept of God as the Abba Father was new, but this has been disproved because it has been shown this was also a teaching of the Pharisees. Calling God by the term Abba suggests the intimacy of a relationship to God like a child would affectionately address a father in the endearing name of Daddy or Papa. This way of speaking of God helps to overcome the idea that God is distant and aloof. The Pharisees had such a teaching of God.
It has been said that Jesus cut through the legalism of Judaism and all the paraphernalia of the Torah by teaching the so-called Golden Rule as the spirit and substance of the entire 613 rules given in the laws of Moses. But a few years prior to Jesus, Hillel, the greatest Pharisee of them all, (a remarkable man who lived to be 120 years old and died when Jesus would have been about 14 years of age) had taught exactly the same point. When a Gentile asked him if he could explain to him what the Law was all about while he stood on one leg, Hillel said to him, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Law. The rest is commentary.”
What about that brilliant saying of Jesus to a people stuck on rigid Sabbath observance and a multitude of rules about keeping it? Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore to be human means to be lord of the Sabbath [arguably the right trans-literation]” Well, Jesus might have gotten that great one-line from Hillel also. He had said, “The Sabbath is given over to you and you are not given over to the Sabbath.”
It is sometimes said that the non-violent, non-retaliating ethic of Jesus (turn the other cheek, love your enemies, etc.) is the thing that set him apart. Nope. Others had at times taught the same, and there are insights into this more humane ethic found even in ancient pagan cultures.
The feature that appears to be new in the teaching of Jesus is that he tied this humane ethical appeal to a new vision of a non-retaliating, non-violent God whose unconditional love embraced even his enemies. The human ethic was to be a mirror to reflect the divine love for all mankind. Humans are simply called to be like God, that is, the children of God. In this doctrine of God there is no retaliating justice, no atonement or compensation for wrongs demanded, nothing to win God’s forgiveness.
This teaching was new. This scandalous kind of liberating justice without appropriate punishment made people angry just as it made Jonah angry.
It swept away the hopes for a day of apocalyptic vengeance on the enemies of “the chosen people”. It swept away the cherished and arrogant ideas of belonging to an inside group fondly called “the chosen people” – indicating there are some special people who are better than the outside people who are not chosen. Or worse as some thought, Jesus’ doctrine of God means that no special group are any better in God’s eyes than the rest of mankind. And this new teaching did away with the whole sacrificial system that gave rise to doctrines of atonement centred on some kind of blood payment for sin. A teaching like this would certainly put an end to the vast priestly vocation of brokering God’s favour with a sacrificial offering.
But let us notice that without Jesus’ new teaching of God it is really impossible to love our neighbor as ourselves. How could you love those whom you think God rejects? Think of the Psalmist who said, “Do not I hate them that hate thee? Yes, I hate them with perfect hatred.” That sounds like hating God’s enemies on the supposition that he really hates them, as another Psalm puts it, “God is angry with the sinner every day.” That is to say, if we think God’s thinks ill of certain people, of course it will become impossible for us not to think ill of them too. Let me state this another way, how can we love our neighbours as ourselves, unless we know that they are loved of God as much as we are loved of God?
The Gospel of Jesus with the good news about God’s unconditional love for all of mankind frees us to love our neighbor as ourselves – and this, as Hillel and Jesus said, is the fulfilment of the whole Law. The rest is commentary.