Commentary on Matthew 5:20-26
Sermon on the Mount (cont’d):
What Jesus means by saying that he has not come to abolish the old Law but to transcend it is made clear by six examples that he gives of how a number of Old Testament sayings are to be understood by his followers. In fact, he says that if we wish to be his followers and do his work we must move forward to the deeper level of understanding he proposes.
“Unless your virtue goes deeper and greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the Kingdom.” It is clear from what we see of the Scribes and Pharisees in the gospels that for them religious virtue consisted in the most exact external observance of every detail of Jewish Law. The more perfect the observance of the letter of the Law, the closer one was to God. Jesus challenged that understanding and it led to serious confrontations with the religious leadership. Of course, the way of the Scribes and Pharisees has its attractions. It is a much easier way to measure one’s obedience to God. And one finds the same among other religions today, including, for instance, Christians and Muslims. Among Christians (including Catholics) today, one finds that there are many who are very anxious to know whether a certain action “is a sin” or not. On the other hand, such an approach leads in many cases to scrupulosity and fear, finding sin even in minutiae. God becomes a menacing shadow ready to strike at the smallest wrongdoing.
Speaking of the Jewish law, the first example Jesus gives is of the commandment: “You must not kill” (Exodus 20:13). Jesus’ understanding of this commandment goes far beyond the actual killing of another person. He extends it even to anger and abusive language. And anger can often be totally locked inside and invisible to an outsider. “Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement, and whoever says to his brother ‘Raqa’ (empty-headed nitwit), will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says ‘You fool’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” In other words, Jesus excludes any kind of violent behaviour towards a brother or sister, either in action, or word, or even thought.
He also links our interpersonal behaviour to our relationship to God. It is no good, then, piously bringing our offering to the altar in the temple and presenting it to God
while we are – through our own fault – in conflict with a brother or sister. We cannot separate our relationship with God and with that of a brother/sister. This will be spelt out in other parts of the Gospel. Before we make our offering, we must first be reconciled with our offended brother/sister and only then, after the injury has been healed, make our offering. Jesus also recommends early reconciliation if only to avoid greater troubles later on. It is not worth going to jail simply out of hatred or anger towards another.
All this is very relevant to us. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist we should recall what Jesus says in this text and are invited to put it into practice. Before we make our offering of the bread and wine, we are invited, at the beginning of the Eucharist, to confess our sins to God and to the gathered community: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…” How often do we really think about what we are saying at this time?
Again, before sharing with others in the Body and Blood of the Lord, we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who offend us.” And we are also invited to make a sign of peace with all those around us. For how can we share in the Body and Blood of the Lord if we are at enmity with a brother or sister who is a member of that same Body? But again, so often this is often just an empty gesture, like a nod of the head, with very little real meaning and, for the most part, made to someone we do not even know. Let us put the meaning back into what can so easily degenerate into a meaningless ritual.