Saint Barnabas, Apostle – Commentary on 1 Kings 18:20-39; Ps 15; Matt 5:17-19
The Gospel reading is from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish gospel, written by a Jew (or Jews) to a Christian community consisting of Jews. Hence, this gospel frequently alludes to the Old Testament and quotes from it to show that Jesus is truly the fulfilment of the prophecies it contains.
In today’s passage, Jesus is reassuring the Jewish community which has become Christian that the validity of the Mosaic Law remains in place and that nothing in it is to be changed. And, in fact, “whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom”. And unless their observances of these laws surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees (noted for their keeping of the minutest laws), they will not enter the Kingdom.
This does not mean, of course, that the follower of Christ only has to follow the Jewish law. What is made very clear from the passages which follow is that Jesus, in fact, sets a much higher standard than the Law. For the most part, the Law involves external observance but the ‘Law’ of Jesus penetrates into the deepest areas of mind and will. So, for example, it is not enough to observe the law not to kill; even any inner thought intending harm to another is not to be condoned. For Jesus, the Law of external actions is to be replaced by the inner law of love which touches on the very core of our being. To operate on that level will mean that the external law will be taken care of.
In the case of Barnabas, whom we are remembering today, he was born a Jew and became a close friend of another Jew, a Pharisee – Saul who became Paul. He would have had the greatest respect for the Law of his people. But he also had come to believe in Christ and the Gospel. He also saw that the Gentiles, who knew nothing of the Law, had the potential to be committed followers of the Gospel. It is this open-mindedness that we too need to imitate.
The First Reading is the dramatic story of the ‘competition’ between Elijah and the priests of Baal as to whose god is the more powerful. In both cases, altars are set up with sacrificial victims on them. Each group was to call on their god to come and burn up the victim. For one whole day the priests of Baal called and called, they slashed themselves with swords and spears so that their blood gushed out. But there was no answer from their Baal – only silence.
Then Elijah set up his altar with twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. On the altar was placed wood and on top of that the flesh of a young bull. Three times water was poured over the sacrifice and the wood and filled the trench around the altar. When all was ready, Elijah invoked Yahweh and immediately fire came down and consumed everything. At this, the people fell on their faces exclaiming, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”
Perhaps the choice of this reading is influenced by the story of Paul and Barnabas in the town of Lystra where they publicly healed a lame man (Acts 14). The crowd immediately hailed them as gods and wanted to worship them. Paul immediately stopped them and tore his clothes to show his distress. The God he believed in was the God of Elijah and not the god of the worshippers of Zeus (to whom there was a temple in Lystra).
In our day we may not believe in gods represented by idols but we can easily be seduced by other types of gods who take over our life – the gods of Pleasure, of Sex, of Material Indulgence and so on. Let us instead find our true happiness in the God for whom Barnabas and Paul were ready to give their lives.