Elsewhere on this blogsite, I have a post on “What Does Jesus Want?” that has, as one item on the list, that we are to follow the rules laid out in the Old Testament unless they are superseded by something in the New Testament. And, I then continue, it’s not enough just to follow the law: What Jesus demands is “law plus.” And I say that the “plus” boils down to two things — having the right attitude as well as the right actions, and humbly serving others before yourself, especially those less fortunate than you are, particularly the poor — and I note that love is the key element here, as it is in throughout Jesus’ teachings.
The purpose of this post is to elaborate on this “plus,” and I do so by looking at: three of Jesus’ recurrent themes; the important answers He gave to two particularly important questions; and, finally, His Sermons on the Plain and on the Mount. In my discussion, the (sometimes overlapping) elements are, as I say, loving God and people (including even enemies), the right attitude (including heart posture), humility (inwardly and outwardly), and service (including generosity in material things and in forgiveness).
I should say at the outset I’m not saying that the Old Testament taught that your attitude was irrelevant, or that it favored selfishness and mistreatment of the poor (on that latter point, see the “Old Testament passages” at this link). When you think about it, we wouldn’t expect God to do a dramatic and drastic rewrite of the moral law. But I am saying that Jesus particularly emphasized these two points — that is, right attitude and a humble and selfless concern for the less fortunate — especially when He was talking about the law and saying, either explicitly or implicitly, that we are supposed to go beyond it.
I’ll also note at the outset once again that a common denominator of right attitude and selflessness is love — love is about both what we feel and what we do — and that much of what Jesus taught has love at its core. Again, this is not to say that the Old Testament does not teach love — Jesus Himself says that the Law and the Prophets can be summarized as loving God and loving your neighbor — but I think it is fair to say that Jesus’ emphasis here is distinctive, to say the least, and that He clarifies and broadens its meaning and ramifications for believers. We are to love not just our literal neighbors but, per the Good Samaritan, total strangers with whom we have nothing in common; indeed, we are to love our enemies. That’s new.
Three Key Recurrent Themes
Heart posture. Jesus emphasizes not only external action but the internal “heart posture” accompanying it. A bad heart posture can result in sin even when there is no accompanying act; good heart posture can elevate an act. Consider the impoverished widow who is praised for giving what for others would be only a small gift (Mark 12:41-43, Luke 21:1-4) (in both Mark and Luke, Jesus is apparently contrasting her heart posture not only with that of “the rich” but also with that of the greedy and ostentatious “teachers of the law”). Indeed, His remarkable chapter-long attack on the “teachers of the law and Pharisees” (Matthew 23) is all about their heart posture.
It is the rich who tend to have a heart posture that makes it so hard for them to get into Heaven. It is wrong when “anyone … stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21); this is the segue to Jesus’ lilies-of-the-field warning us that our focus should be on God rather than worrying about material things (Luke 12:22-34). We cannot serve both God and mammon (Luke 16:13); soon after He says this, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). See also Mark 4:17-19, Matthew 13:21-22, and Luke 8:13-14 (from “Parable of the Four Soils”). When Zacchaeus’s heart posture changes dramatically, he gives half his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8).
The right heart posture almost always involves love, discussed next.
Love. As I noted, much of what Jesus taught has love at its core, and often the “plus” involves the application of love to a narrow version of the law in order to broaden or explain it. Recall that Jesus said that the two core commandments are loving God and loving your neighbor. And the Golden Rule is a good test for determining whether an action toward a neighbor is truly loving, is it not? In John, Jesus is explicit in what He requires of his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another” (13:34); see also 15:12, 17 (also saying it is His “command” that the disciples love each other).
Consider Jesus’ emphasis on forgiving others: Such forgiveness is an expression of love, is it not? See Luke 11:4, 17:3-4, Matthew 18:21-35. Forgiving is giving. And doesn’t service fit into this category, too? And doesn’t love account for Jesus’ concern for the poor, who were more likely to be unloved, and precisely because of their poverty? Consider the message of Matthew 25:31-46 (whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me). Generosity to the poor, crippled, blind, and lame is emphasized in the two parables at Luke 14:12-14 and 15-24. Consider, too, Jesus’ condemnation of of divorce: Wouldn’t this typically protect the (economically more precarious) woman? See Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:1-9, and Luke 16:18.
How about condemnation of the greedy (see His treatment of the temple money-changers, for example, in Mark 11:15-17 and John 2:14-17)? Well, greed often (usually?) means loving material things more than your fellow man, maybe even more than God.
Humility and service. Jesus emphasizes serving others, of the first coming last and the last coming first. Mark 9:35-37 and Luke 9:46-48; see also Matthew 18:1-6 (note that the “rich young ruler” incident concludes with Jesus also uses the “first last/last first” construction, but it’s in the context of heavenly rewards, I think; on the other hand, earlier that incident also does indeed stress serving the poor). The occasion twice arises in the context of the apostles arguing among themselves about who, after Jesus, comes first. Jesus tells them not to be like the Gentiles: that among His followers, they (like Him) are to be servants. See Matthew 20:24-29, Mark 10:43-45, and Luke 22:24-30. Children and the importance of welcoming them are often part of the backdrop; apparently children back then were viewed as not only less senior (see Luke 22:26) but also more humble.
The themes of serving the poor and not exalting oneself are found in Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast and teaching at Luke 14:7-14; the latter theme of humility is also found in another of Jesus’ parables in Luke, namely the contrasting prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14).
And perhaps Jesus’ most dramatic teaching of service and humility is when He washes His disciples’ feet on the Thursday before His crucifixion (John 13:1-12).
As with heart posture, humility and service will involve love.
Jesus’ Important Answers to Two Important Questions
Jesus is asked, in the “rich young ruler” incident (Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-29, and Matthew 19:16-30), what one must do to have eternal life. Jesus answers flatly that the questioner must “obey the commandments,” and then lists several of them. [Footnote on that list: It does not include covetousness, but it also omits the God-focused first four; the list in Matthew includes loving your neighbor, and in Mark not defrauding; so we’re clearly not talking about just the Ten Commandments here. Speaking of lists: The converse list of “unclean” evils in Mark 7:21-23 is broader than those listed in Matthew 15:19.] When the questioner affirms that he has kept the commandments, Jesus then adds, “If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (The first thing Jesus had said in His response is that no one is good but God.) So “law-plus.”
Another key Q+A in Mark and Matthew (12:28-34 and 22:34-40, respectively) is when Jesus is asked to name the most important commandment (in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus answers a question about what must be done to inherit eternal life the same way). Again, He gives a flat answer: Number one is love God (with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength) and next is love your neighbor (as yourself). In Matthew, Jesus then adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”; in Mark, after the questioner affirms his agreement, Jesus assures him, “you are not far from the kingdom of God”; in Luke, after saying, “Do this and you will live,” Jesus goes on to answer a follow-up question about whom one is to consider a “neighbor” by recounting the parable of the Good Samaritan, concluding by telling the questioner to “Go and do likewise” (that is, to show “mercy”). Speaking of follow-ups, in what may be the same talk with the same crowd, Jesus in the next chapter in Matthew criticizes the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees” for tithing but “neglect[ing] the more important matters of law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (23:23).
Two Important Sermons
Sermon on the Plain. I don’t think the four Beatitudes (and the corresponding four woe-to-you’s) in the Sermon on the Plain are telling us that we should hope and work to be poor, hungry, weeping, and hated (rather than rich, well fed, laughing, and spoken well of), but I do think it is a warning to the those in the latter categories to be compassionate toward those in the former. [Footnote re the Beatitudes: Later in Luke (11:28), Jesus says, “Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”]
That message fits in well with the passage that follows (6:27-38), the core of which must be quoted in any discussion of Jesus’ teaching:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
We are not to judge and condemn others, but to give and forgive. All “law-plus.”
Incidentally, as we turn finally to the Sermon on the Mount, I should note that it would be quite foolish to argue that there is something amiss with Luke discussing a sermon on the plain and Matthew discussing a sermon on the mount. Jesus would likely have talked on numerous plains and mounts, and hills and valleys, and any public speaker repeats, with variations, similar speeches many times. I’ll note that the statement of the Golden Rule appears in both (Luke 5:31 and Matthew 7:12) but seems to fit better contextually in Luke.
Sermon on the Mount. I have saved a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount for last. I think it is fair to say that this sermon — which takes up three complete chapters in Matthew — is the most complete single statement of Jesus’ teaching on how we should behave. I could have broken it into pieces and scattered it throughout the above, topic-by-topic discussion, but since it is such an impressive oration, I thought it better to treat it as a whole at the end, bearing in mind how each part reinforces the more specific topics covered above.
It’s not just an impressive oration: It’s a convicting one. Here’s a quote from my hero C.S. Lewis when he was accused of “not caring” for it: “As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount… Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge-hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of the man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.”
I think the sermon can be usefully divided into five sections: (1) the Beatitudes, (2) Jesus’ discussion of how He wants us to follow the law — and go beyond it, (3) His injunction that we be humble and unostentatious in our worship, (4) His insistence that we keep our earthly focus on God rather than material things, and (5) His instructions on how to deal with evil in the world.
The Beatitudes. I read the Beatitudes (6:3-10), with which Jesus begins His sermon, as His reassurance to the faithful: that, while it may seem that they are and will be treated as losers, they are in fact going to win in the end. So the conditions and traits of the blessed — poorness in spirit, mournfulness, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercifulness, pureness of heart, peacemaking, and being persecuted for their righteousness — are not necessarily all endorsed (should we hope to mourn and be persecuted?) but Jesus is, I think, recognizing these conditions and traits in His disciples. The pep talk continues in 6:11-16, with Jesus telling His disciples that the persecution they suffer for following Him will bring heavenly rewards, that they are “the salt of the earth,” and that they are and should embrace being “the light of the world.”
Going beyond the law. This is the most extensive and explicit passage bearing on the title of this post, namely where Jesus addresses most clearly how He want us to follow the law — and indeed go beyond it in order to fulfill it. Here’s how he starts out (5:17-20):
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And then, even more dramatically, Jesus goes on to give six examples of His “plus,” regarding anger, lust, divorce, vows, retaliation, and loving enemies (5:21-48). Not only must we not murder, but we must reconcile with those with whom we are angry; not only must we not commit adultery, but we must not even lust in our hearts; the law may allow divorce for reasons other than adultery, but it’s still wrong; making oaths may have been permitted, but we should always be bound by our words, eschewing any swearing; the law may award an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but we are to turn the other cheek; and we are to love not only our neighbors, as the law requires, but are to love and pray for our enemies as well. Jesus concludes (5:48), “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Wow. Jesus wants inward change to our cores, not just constraints on extreme acts; He wants malice toward none and charity to all, and the law is to be interpreted and expanded to that end. He wants us to be perfect.
Unostentatiousness. Chapter 6 of Matthew begins with Jesus giving three examples of how we are to be unostentatious in our worship. Humility, by the way, is the inward counterpart of the outward trait of unostentatiousness, is it not? Our good deeds should generally not be showboated (6:1), and the specific example then provided is giving to the needy (6:2-4). When we pray, don’t make a big show of that either, but pray in solitude, and pray simply (6:5-14; the example given for right prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus then repeats its injunction to forgive those who sin against you so that God will forgive your sins). Finally, fasting should likewise be done in secret (6:16-18).
Focus on God. Chapter 6 concludes with Jesus’ insistence, using two different approaches, that we keep our earthly focus on God rather than material things. We are to store up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth, for one cannot serve both God and money (6:19-24); and we are not to worry about food or clothing, because God will provide them, so long as He is what we seek (6:25-34).
Dealing with evil. The passages that make up chapter 7 may seem to be a hodgepodge, but I think there is actually a logicality to them and their order. The chapter begins with Jesus warning us not to criticize others while ignoring our own sins (this judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged message has an obvious echo in the incident of the go-and-sin-no-more adulteress in John 8:1-11); next, rather abruptly, we are warned not to cast our pearls before swine (7:6); and then we are told not to hesitate to ask and seek, for God will answer (7:7-12). Finally, we are told that the path to Heaven is harder to discern than the path to destruction (7:13-14), that there are false prophets (recognizable by their “bad fruit”) eager to lead us astray (7:15-20), and that those who ignore His word are courting disaster — while those who follow it are building their lives on the most solid of foundations (7:21-27).
So, to paraphrase Jesus: You disciples will have to deal with people who don’t get it, and here are some tips. First, remember that you are not perfect either, and so the first order of business is to get your own act together. Now, some people not only don’t get it: They don’t want to get it, so don’t waste your time on them. As for the bad people who want to lead you off the path to Heaven (which can be hard to recognize — you’ll need to pray for help in finding it) and put you on the path to Hell (which is broad): Look out for them! Their deeds will betray them, and their refusal to follow Me will lead them to destruction.
Two Additional Important Statements
Finally, just to be complete, I should note two other famous statements by Jesus that are not stated in the law. First, we are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — but unto God what is God’s (Mark 12:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26). Second, we are to be born again (John 3:3-8).