Year A: Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time
Teaching About the Law
Matthew 5: 17-37
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.
- Where do you tend to focus on the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit of the law and its connection with justice, love and compassion?
- “Our relationship with others is a reflection of our relationship with God.” What relationships in your life most need reconciliation and what prevents you from initiating that healing gesture?
- How do you go about short-circuiting the attitudes or behaviors that cause you to sin or “offend yourself” and may need to be “cut off”?
- In this teaching Jesus’ fulfillment of the law requires not just external conformity to the law, but also a change of our internal attitude and a conversion of the heart. How do you know if your heart is converting, what tells you this is happening?
Matthew 5: 17-37
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
“Do not think I came to abolish the law but rather to fulfill it.”
Paul often talked about the end of the time of the law but Jesus presented a different perspective. We need to understand Jesus’ sense of the fulfillment of the law within the context of metanoia – the turnaround implied by faith in Christ. The disciple who has undergone a radical change of perspective will understand the law and morality in a new and different way. God’s law was never supposed to function like a set of rules demanding conformity; rather, God told the people that the law was near to them, it dwelt in their hearts and would give them life (Deuteronomy 30:12-18). Nevertheless, they did not always take it in. Jesus now offers to show the disciples how to live the law in such a way that it directs their motivation and their perception, their heart and their mind. It is only when the law is a living interior force that people can truly fulfill it. The person who conforms to a law that doesn’t spring from the heart is like a dancer who makes all the right moves without interiorizing the rhythm. It’s a performance, not a dance. A well-oiled robot could accomplish the same. The moves may be right but they’re not graceful.
Each of Jesus’ examples springs from the tradition and gives it new life. When he refers to anger against a brother his people will hear references to Cain and Abel, and to Joseph’s jealous brothers. They will understand immediately what kind of anger leads to murder, and they will recognize it when they are implicated in the same deadly process. The demand for reconciliation here is stringent — it isn’t just to forgive, but to reach out to someone who has something against you — even if you might not think it’s your fault! The call to avoid anger thus evolves into a call to cultivate both humility and love for the other over oneself.
On the topic of relations between the sexes, Jesus stood up for vulnerable women. First of all, he said that regarding a woman as an object of pleasure denigrates her personhood. At a time when adultery was considered a crime against the woman’s husband, Jesus described both the lascivious gaze and the adulterous act as an offense against the woman herself, pointing out her primary significance in the whole matter. The same holds with the question of divorce. Because only the man could decide on divorce, it often left the woman without any honorable means of support. If a man puts a woman in that position, says Jesus, he will incur the guilt for whatever happens as a result. No man is free simply to wash his hands of a situation that doesn’t please him.
Finally, in what may seem to us a much lesser matter, Jesus tells people to stop swearing oaths as if that made their statements more trustworthy. In some cases, legalists of the day had determined certain formulae which rendered oaths null, thereby making them and the word of the person pronouncing them a sham. Such an oath would have no object other than to deceive. But even in general, Jesus left no room for double talk among his disciples — too much would depend on their transparency and commitment.
Each of these pronouncements on the tradition clearly calls for deep commitment and interiority in the fulfillment of the law. They also halt the tendency to triangulation involved in thinking of hurting others as a transgression against heaven more than as mistreatment and disrespect of a brother or sister. When people think of the law primarily as what must be obeyed to stay in good graces with God they miss the entire point of God’s love. The commandments are the basis for creating the happiness and community for which God created humanity. Transgressing the law is an offense against God precisely because of the harm it does to the human community. Thinking otherwise makes it sound as if God has a delicate ego that must be treated with great care lest God unleash the full force of divine wrath in punishment. That’s an idea that disparages both God and humanity.
Jesus’ teachings about human relations described the interactions that characterize the kingdom of heaven. As in the earlier part of this discourse, these are wisdom sayings, not juridical pronouncements. They present a design for living with specific examples that can be applied to other situations as well. What underlies the whole is a profoundly reverential approach to relationships, to our dealings with those with whom we share community or family and those with whom we deal in day-to-day situations. The real subject of Jesus’ teaching here is about the heart we put into every human interaction.
Working on Yourself
One of the oldest spiritual injunctions is, “Know yourself.” It is meant to push people down a path of self-discovery. Although this search may begin with social ambitions and intimate relationships, eventually it will turn inward. The ones who want to know themselves will set up a watching and listening post in the center of their being. They will begin the arduous task of observing the machinations of the mind and the flutterings of the heart.
Introspective interiority points to everything the Seer (you) sees. In particular, the Seer gradually accumulates knowledge about how the mind works in general and how his or her mind works in particular. When this knowledge is received nonjudgmentally and responded to with love, it becomes the malleable material of transformation. We come into reflective awareness of the deeper drivers of our moods, motivations, and behaviors. We are ripe for inner change that will manifest itself in new, outer behavior.
This powerful Gospel text from the Sermon on the Mount suggests we search the mind and come to self-knowledge around a few crucial issues. We should know how anger rises in us, comes to expression, and then subsides. We should watch lust and note how it grips us and rushes us along paths we may not choose. We should also come to understand how we want shortcuts to forgiveness, how we hesitate and sometimes completely stall when it comes to initiating reconciling conversations. Why are the drives to anger and lust so powerful and the drive to reconciliation so weak? Coming to this knowledge is the work we must do on ourselves if the Sermon on the Mount is to be heeded.
And, of course, the origins of false speech must be appreciated. Self-knowledge involves becoming truthful about lying. Why do we think the lie is so necessary? A lie that is known as a lie is truly a failure. Is it partially because there is no congruence between our consciousness and our thoughts and feelings? We say things that are untrue because we do not do what is true. Some say, “Silence is the mother of integrity.” Only when we are quiet can we touch the depth of our feelings and thoughts and bring them forward adequately. When this happens, we delight in wholeheartedness. We are integral; the inside and the outside are in communion. But this is a rare experience. We are not expert in the skills of silence, and so most of the time our speech is fragmented and inevitably incomplete. The more we know about ourselves, the more the blocks to higher righteousness become evident.
As I was writing this reflection, the phone rang. I picked it up and friend of mine asked me what I was doing. I said I was meditating on the Sermon on the Mount. “Oh,” he said, “that’s just a list of things you can’t do.
That may be forever true. But if we are to move toward its wisdom even a little, we must begin the difficult but loving work of self-knowledge.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.