Every Jot and Tittle
You have heard that it was said to an older generation, 'Do not murder,' and 'whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.' But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says 'Fool' will be sent to fiery hell. (Mat 5:21-22)
You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mat 5:27-28)
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. (Mat 5:38-39)
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor' and 'hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mat 5:43-45)
"Ahem. Well now, you seem like a reasonable fellow. Let's reason together about these sayings... It seems to me that you are saying the thought is as bad as the deed! Since all of us have a slip of the mind now and then, why, we are guilty already and face punishment even if we have not actually committed the act prohibited by the law. If that is true, then as soon as I have the thought, I might as well go ahead and do the deed! So why not go ahead and do it? HAH! You see, those statements practically destroy any ability of the law to instill proper moral behavior."
Ok. I know that those reading this document would probably never reason that way. But I would bet there were plenty of people standing around at the time of Jesus who would have made that very argument. So, before he launched into these "You have heard... But I say..." statements, Jesus made it clear:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:17-19)
This statement of Jesus, so often quoted out of context and misused, is a preemptive strike against those who would pervert his teaching. That statement from Jesus made it clear that the following statements were not to be misinterpreted as making the law void, but were to be correctly interpreted as "fulfilling" the law. Jesus is not adding to the law, or taking away from the law, but giving it its full meaning, one which the Pharisees had missed. In short, don't extend what Jesus said to something he didn't intend. (That applies to verses 17-19 as well.)
With that in mind, we can see what Jesus was getting at.
Our temptation is to think that morality is a solely matter of actions. What you think isn't the problem (we would say) but only what you do. That attitude focuses on the outward appearance, the physical act, and ignores the inner conflict of our desires. Jesus makes it clear that morality goes beyond physical acts and appearances. Moral behavior can only exist where the inner being of the person is innately moral. If you never had the desire, you would never commit the act, in other words.
This teaching by Jesus provides us with a model for interpreting the Bible. Jesus did not stop at the literal meaning and go no further. He took the words and built abstract concepts to deepen their meaning. So often we study the Bible in a too-literal manner and with the wrong focus. I don't mean that we should ignore the obvious literal meanings or historical events and treat them as mere stories. What we must do, however, is see how the literal meaning forms a reflection of the deeper spiritual truths the Bible is intended to convey. Thus, if we only think of "murder" as the literal act of killing, ignoring the spiritual corruption that leads to an act of murder, we will become hypocrites who "strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel." (Mat 23:24).
Jesus does not stop at the literal meaning, but deepens and fills up the scripture to show us the true meaning of God's law and the nature of sin. Sin is not simply the violation of one of the "thou shalt" or the "thou shalt not" rules of the law. Sin is an inner state of being that is guided by something other than the righteousness of God. If you think of morality as the deed, not the thought, the sayings of Jesus make no sense. Only when we understand that God sees the spiritual nature of a person, do we begin to understand what Jesus taught. We were created to be the "image and likeness" of God. As God is spirit, that image and likeness is a spiritual state of being, not one of physical appearance.
Likewise, the law is not a set of rules that when followed make us righteous. Rather, the righteous person is the one who would never violate the rules. Or, put another way, the fulfillment of God's law is a reflection of His righteousness in us, not the producer of it. Lacking a nature of righteousness, mankind could not be made to understand righteousness unless it was taught simply and directly by a set of exemplars. But the purpose of the examples was to instill in the mind an appreciation of the moral premise of the law and our failure to live up to God's intent for us. With an understanding of the moral corruption in us we open the heart and mind to our need for salvation. (See: Gal. 3:21-26)
Jesus said to him, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Mat 22:37-40)
All of the "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" stuff is derived from this premise. If you truly love God, you will love the things that God loves. You will seek to see your neighbor as another being as yourself, one created by God for His purposes, weak but still loved by God. If we truly loved one another, all of the things Jesus said "don't do" would be easy. We would not unjustly condemn someone any more than we would want to murder them. We would not covet and lust after what is committed to or possessed by another, since we recognize the hurt to the other that would result. We would not want to do injury to another just because he got angry and hit us. We would see one another as God sees us, and love one another as God loves us.
We cannot reach that loving state of being through our own power, however. Man's rebellion against God and our focus on our material state of being, have left us in the condition of spiritual bankruptcy. We must have help. We must have someone pay the price of our debt. We must have the power of God come to us, lift us up from this corrupt state, and build up in us the true image of God. Then, and only then, can the perfect Love of God flow through us into the world. We must, as Paul says, "put on Christ." We must put off the old man, dying to the flesh, so that a new spirit of Love and Compassion will be born in us. Knowing that we cannot accomplish this transformation of the soul by our own power, we must of necessity rely on God's power working in us, yielding in obedience to that power. In other words, we must have faith in God to be righteous, moral, and exhibit love towards our fellow human beings. Every "jot and tittle" of the law can be fulfilled in us, but only by faith in the power of God.
Nothing else will work.