Have you ever given something up for Lent? My husband and I decided to this year, and we have also added a few healthy practices into our daily routines, in an effort to set these 40 days apart as especially sacred and worshipful.
As a child I gave up chocolate for Lent one year. I thought I was doing really well, and then one day my mom saw me with a lollipop in my mouth, and asked which flavor it was. I responded, “Vanilla and…chocolate… But it doesn’t count! It’s a lollipop, not real chocolate!” I desperately tried to justify getting as close as possible to eating chocolate without actually consuming it. Looking back, I think we do this quite often: we step right up to the border between what is good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, pure and sinful, just to see how close we can get.
The fifth chapter of Matthew contains six texts that are often called the “Antitheses.” They’re the, “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” verses. The issue with calling them “Antitheses,” though, is that it implies Jesus is saying something different or antithetical, in contrast to what was said before. That is not in fact the case. Instead, Jesus intensifies what was already written in the Old Testament. Jesus uses this framework to discuss murder, adultery, divorce, vowing, vengeance, and loving our enemies.
Jewish tradition after the time of Jesus contains the idea of “making a fence around the Torah” (see Amy-Jill Levine’s Jewish Annotated New Testament, pg. 11, and m. Pirkei Avot 1.1). The idea is that rather than getting as far as we can without breaking the laws of the Torah, we should instead build a fence around the laws of the Torah to guard them and to keep ourselves from breaking them. That is what Jesus is doing in these, “You have heard it said… But I say to you” moments.
For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus’ command to not lust puts a fence around the Torah command to not commit adultery, since lust is a necessary element in cheating on one’s spouse. The logic is that if you never even think about committing adultery, then you ensure that you will never commit it physically.
Moreover, Jesus says, “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5: 38-39). The “eye for an eye” text in Leviticus 24:19-20 was initially written to prevent violence from escalating — it says that the injured person can balance out the infliction, but cannot impose any additional harm to his aggressor. Jesus then builds a fence around the Leviticus command by instructing us to not retaliate at all, thereby ensuring that we don’t do additional damage.
These texts aren’t about Jesus receiving a new revelation about the Torah that says the “old” laws aren’t good anymore — rather, Jesus wants us to protect the laws God has given us. In those moments when we could stretch the truth, could push the boundaries a little further, he tells us to step back and to honor the instructions we’ve been given. To build a fence around them. And ultimately, building that fence not only protects and nurtures our relationship with God, but it also encourages loyalty, trust, and faithfulness in ourselves and in our relationships with others.