Summary: Entering into the spirit of what is behind the Law.
METAPHORS OF MORTIFICATION
Sometimes the Sermon on the Mount has been the called the new Law. This is not necessarily helpful. We are not under law, but under grace (cf. Romans 6:14).
1. When Jesus says, “But I say unto you,” He is entering into the spirit of what lies behind the Law. For example, He warns against the festering anger which leads to murder (cf. Matthew 5:22). In our present passage, He warns against the heart lust that leads to the leering look that leads to adultery (Matthew 5:28).
This is one of several places where Jesus speaks in very strong language about cutting off certain parts of our bodies (Matthew 5:29-30). Considering that the body of the Christian is the temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19), this can only be understood metaphorically. It is because ‘he that commits fornication sins against his own body’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18) that Jesus uses the metaphorical examples of “plucking out the right eye”, or “cutting off the right hand” in the context of heart adultery (Matthew 5:29-30).
The Apostle Paul reminds us, ‘If ye live according to the flesh, ye shall die, but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’ (Romans 8:13). Put simply, “plucking out the eye” means, ‘Don’t look’. “Cutting off the hand” means ‘Don’t act upon the temptation’.
‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry’ (Colossians 3:5).
2. We find another striking, if not alarming metaphor when we cross-reference Jesus’ comments on divorce here (Matthew 5:31-32) with His reply to the Pharisees’ cynical query, ‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?’ (cf. Matthew 19:3).
When Jesus later repeated His comments on divorce, it left His disciples somewhat perplexed (Matthew 19:8-10). So He added what must surely be another metaphor, speaking of ‘becoming eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’ (cf. Matthew 19:12). I pity the man who acted upon too literal an understanding of this verse!
3. There is no metaphor in the directive about swearing: Jesus is rather emphasising straightforward, honest speaking (Matthew 5:37).
Don’t commit perjury, and don’t be always dragging the Lord’s name and the things of God - and this and that - into our private assertions. If we are Christians, our word should be enough (cf. James 5:12).
4. In the last section we shall look at today, Jesus enjoins that we “Resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39a). Oh - it is hard - but “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5:38) belongs to the law courts (cf. Leviticus 24:20), not to personal vendettas.
Traditionally, the slap across the cheek receives a back-handed counter-slap to accept the challenge. But Jesus says, “turn the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39b). ‘Turning the other cheek’ is often used metaphorically of taking an insult without recourse.
“Going the second mile” has its historical setting within the Roman Empire, where a Roman soldier might conscript someone to carry something, for example, over a certain distance (Matthew 5:41). Imagine his surprise if you offered to go further! ‘Going the second mile’ is also used metaphorically.
So the upshot of Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation is: Take the insult (Matthew 5:39), forfeit the garment (Matthew 5:40), go the second mile (Matthew 5:41), be merciful to the scrounger (Matthew 5:42). We are better than all these things.