Jesus was no stranger to controversy. He made enemies. He was used to being attacked, especially by the Pharisees. It’s not surprising. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is a direct challenge to the religious establishment. A benign interpretation of this passage could be that Jesus is merely suggesting that the pursuit of perfection requires us to go further than the letter of the law. But in fact, it’s a full-frontal assault.
They say it’s good to get your defence in first: ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets’. Then Jesus does precisely that. Having insisted that ‘not one dot, not one little stroke shall disappear from the Law’, he exposes the malicious contradictions inherent in the legalistic mindset. He works his way through a list of laws and demonstrates how they aren’t fit for purpose.
Jesus has a larger and more expansive vision than the be-grudgers can ever grasp. He dismantles their credibility item by item. His vision of the Kingdom is totally at odds with theirs. Being the salt of the earth and the light of the world is not for small minds.
The crowning insult to the Pharisees comes in the phrase ‘even the tax collectors do as much do they not?’ For rigorously observant Pharisees, the tax collectors are as disgraceful and despised as you can get. Yet Jesus brackets them together – he tells them they are as bad as each other. No wonder they hated him. He then lays it on even thicker for his audience: if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.