Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Legal Ellipsis

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21–22).

The words of Jesus have vital significance for our understanding of the sanctity of life. Here Jesus broadened the implications of the Old Testament Law. He was speaking to religious leaders who had a narrow and simplistic grasp of the Ten Commandments. The legalists of His day were confident that if they obeyed the explicitly stated aspects of the Law, they could applaud themselves for their great virtue. They failed, however, to grasp the wider implications. In Jesus’ view, what the Law did not spell out in detail was clearly implied by its broader meaning. This quality of the Law is seen in Jesus’ expansion of the law against adultery:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27).

Jesus explained that a person who refrains from the physical act of adultery has not necessarily been obedient to the whole law. The law on adultery is a complex one, including not only actual illicit intercourse but everything that falls between lust and adultery. Jesus described lust as adultery of the heart.

The law prohibits certain negative behaviors and attitudes, but by implication requires certain positive behaviors and attitudes. Adultery is prohibited; chastity and purity are required.

When we apply these patterns set forth by Jesus to the prohibition against murder, we understand that, on the one hand, we are to refrain from all things contained in the broad definition of murder, and on the other hand, we are positively commanded to work for the saving, improving, and caring of life. We are to avoid murder while doing all that we can to promote life.

Just as Jesus considered lust as a part of adultery, so He views unjustifiable anger and slander as parts of murder. As lust is adultery of the heart, so anger and slander are murder of the heart.

By widening or expanding the scope of the Ten Commandments to include such matters as lust or slander, Jesus did not mean that it is just as evil to lust after a person as it is to have unlawful physical intercourse. Likewise, Jesus did not say that slander is just as evil as murder. Each law has an ellipsis, an alternative aspect, which carries the same moral imperative. What He did say is that the law against murder includes a law against anything that involves injuring a fellow human unjustly.