Sunday of week 6 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

THE FIRST CHRISTIANS were all Jews. In the beginning they continued to observe many of their traditional customs e.g. about circumcision, about clean and unclean food. They went to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But very soon, non-Jews (Gentiles) also became Christians and these did not have to observe some of the traditions of the Jews. But the Jewish Christians felt uncomfortable about this. When they became Christians did they have to abandon traditions, which were so much part of both their religious and social life? It became a very serious issue in the Apostolic Church.

Matthew’s gospel, from which today’s passage comes, was written primarily for Jewish Christians and today’s reading – and indeed the whole of this gospel – can be seen as words of encouragement for them. Throughout his gospel, Matthew constantly uses the Old Testament to show that the life of Jesus is not a breakaway from past Jewish traditions but that it is a continuation of all that was foretold by the prophecies of the Hebrew Testament. The life and teaching of Jesus is not to be seen as a new religion; Jesus’ life is the natural development of the story of salvation. And Jesus is the climax of that story, because Jesus is the Messiah king and saviour for whom the Jews had been waiting for such a long time. (In that sense, our Bible is really only one book.)

The Law and Jesus

So in today’s Gospel Matthew emphasises the relation between Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus. Matthew reassures his readers that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to bring them to completion. So, in a sense, the Law still has force. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

On the other hand, there is much in Jesus’ teaching that is completely new. He did not abolish the Law but he introduced a completely new way of thinking. He did not abolish or change the Law but went far beyond its literal requirements. For Jesus, just to keep the Law externally is not enough. To be a disciple of Christ, the foundation of our lives must go deeper – to a mutual love. To keep the Law without love is like having a body without a soul. Literally to keep the Law of God and of the Church is not the same as being a good disciple of Jesus. “If your virtue goes no deeper than the Scribes and the Pharisees [who were perfect observers of the letter of the Law], then you will never enter the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says today.

The Scribes and the Pharisees kept the Law and the Commandments very carefully. But Jesus would say that, though they observed the external requirements of the Law, they did not have the spirit which is the foundation of the Law: to love God and to love the neighbour as oneself. Clearly, this teaching would have made much more impact on a Jewish audience but, even in our Christian lives, it is possible for people to have a very mechanical notion of what is good behaviour. This is revealed often in the way we “go to confession”.

Six examples

To help us understand his meaning Jesus gives six striking examples and, in today’s Gospel, we have four of them. In these four examples Jesus helps us to understand that, to be one of his disciples, it is not enough simply to keep what the Law tells us to do. We do not keep the Law through our behaviour but through our basic attitudes, our basic values.

When the Pharisees kept the Law they wanted to obey God but very often they neglected the needs of others. It was their own “perfection” they were mainly concerned about (just as we can be exclusively concerned about being in a “state of grace”). Even now, some people in confession are sorry because their sins offend God or are instances of personal failure but often they show little awareness of how their sins hurt other people.

For Jesus, we cannot separate our relationship with God and our relationship with people. If we cannot find God in our brothers and sisters, we cannot say that we really love God. “As often as you did not do it to them, you did not do it to me.” Or in the words of the First Letter of John: “If you refuse to love, you must remain dead; to hate your brother is to be a murderer” (1 John 3:15).

Do not kill

The first example from the Law that Jesus gives is, “Do not kill.” But Jesus says we must not even get angry or use insulting words with others. What Jesus is saying is that we must deeply respect the dignity and rights of every person, a person who is unconditionally loved by God and for whom Jesus will sacrifice his life. And if we do not respect our brothers and sisters deep within our heart, we cannot say we respect God. So if I am going to the Temple to pray (a religious act of worship) and I remember I have offended someone, I should go and reconcile with my brother first and only then make my offering in the Temple. Otherwise, my prayers and offering are of no real value.

Life and worship cannot be separated: each influences the other. Yet, how often do we piously go to Mass when we have deeply hurt another person and need to reconcile with him or her? We cannot say we love Jesus if we are hurting others.

That is the meaning of the sign of peace which we share with others before sharing in the communion. And, where possible, it would be great to make a point of giving the sign of peace sincerely to a person with whom we have a problem, a person we may criticise or dislike, or someone who is a foreigner or a complete stranger. If we cannot do this, we may question the genuineness and integrity of our communion.

Do not commit adultery

“You must not commit adultery.” Adultery occurs when there are sexual relations between two people, of whom at least one is already married. In Jewish Law there were very serious penalties for this. We remember the woman who was brought to Jesus to be stoned to death, because that was what the Law demanded. Jesus, however, says you can commit adultery in your thoughts (and nobody knows about it – except you).

Again Jesus is saying that, apart from our external actions, our basic attitude is paramount. We cannot just use another person just as an object to give us pleasure. We cannot use another person like a toy. When that happens both are degraded. Real love is completely different. Real respect is completely different. And adultery is wrong not so much because it is a sexual act outside marriage but because it is an act of serious injustice to the innocent married partner and seriously injures the marriage relationship. It is a serious breach of trust and fidelity.

No divorce

The Law also says, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” In Jesus’ time, it was relatively easy to divorce. If a husband became sexually attracted to another woman, he could just make an official declaration that he was divorcing his wife. It could be for very trivial reasons. She could do nothing. She had no say in the matter.

It was legal but, according to Jesus, it was against the dignity and the rights of the wife. It was legal but it was both selfish and unjust. It was legal but also immoral. For Jesus, it is not enough for something to be legal. It must also be good. It must also be an expression of love and justice. That is something we need to remember. Immoral acts are not less moral because they do not happen to be against the law or because I am no longer a practising Catholic.

It would seem that Jesus is dealing here with divorce for selfish reasons. In our time, divorce is often the result of a marriage having irretrievably broken down. In Jesus’ time, love or happiness had very little to do with marriage. It was governed by the laws and by tradition and was seen primarily as the bringing together of two families with the purpose of producing heirs. The matter is more complex in our own time and we have also to distinguish between obtaining a civil divorce (which Catholics can do) and having a second sacramental marriage (which, under the present legislation, Catholics may not do). And there are other issues involved in the question of divorce but they can be dealt with more fully when we deal with the question later (27th Sunday, Year B)

No false swearing

“Don’t swear falsely! Carry out what you vow.” It was common in Jesus’ time for people to guarantee the truth of what they said by making a solemn oath before God. Jesus’ point is that a good Christian does not have to swear at all, because a true Christian is a reliable and totally honest person. He or she is a person of integrity. Such people can be trusted when they speak. They don’t have to give external guarantees. Their ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ means exactly what is said and there are no mental reservations. It is a pleasure to meet people like that, who are totally transparent and have nothing to hide.

Catholics and the law

There are not a few Catholics who feel that if they just keep the Commandments they are good Catholics. They often like to ask, “Is this a sin?”, that is, is it against the law? Is it a mortal sin or is it a venial sin? If it is “only” a venial sin, then I can do it.

But true Christians do not ask whether something is legal or illegal. They love God, they love Jesus, they love their brothers and sisters. Their only concern is how they can serve and love them more and more. They want to work with Jesus and with his brothers and sisters to build the Kingdom of God. No matter how much they do, they know they can still love more and do more and be more.

It is not then a question of law; it is not a question of what I have to do. It is a question of how much more I can do, how much more I want to do. The requirements of the law are way behind.

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