Saint Justin, Martyr – Readings

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Matthew 5:13-19

The Gospel reading comes from the Sermon on the Mount, and immediately follows the Eight Beatitudes, which can be said to be a portrait of Jesus and also of every Christian modelled on him. What today’s passage reminds us that it is not enough, as a follower of Christ, just to be a good person – to be, as people say, “in the state of grace” so that we can “go to heaven”. Much more is asked of a follower of Jesus. We are not only to model ourselves on him but to invite others to do the same.

To be a Christian is to be a missionary. It is not just to ‘convert’ people in the sense of ‘making them Catholics’. It is to spread throughout the world the vision of life which Jesus had as God in the flesh, with the hope that more and more people will live their lives in this way. Jesus uses lovely images to say this. He calls on us to be the “salt of the earth”. As Jesus says:

…but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

We are to be the light of the world and a light that can be seen. A light covered up makes no sense. We are to be like a city built on a hill; it cannot hide. And yet how often does it happen that we discover with someone we have known for a long time, perhaps even a next door neighbour that they are Christians? How many people know that I am one? And how do I make myself visible?

The second part of the Gospel is on the observance of the Jewish Law, the Law of Moses. One must remember that this is from Matthew’s Gospel, which is written by a Jew (or Jews) for Jewish Christians, and Matthew is very anxious to assure his fellow-Jews that Jesus’ coming does not mean the abolition of the Law of Moses, but rather its fulfilment. So Jesus here assures his fellow-Jews that not a jot of the old Law will disappear till the end of time. And that:

…but whoever does them [keeps the commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

However, in the section of Matthew’s Gospel (which is not part of today’s reading), Jesus makes it very clear that a literal observance of the Law is not, in fact, sufficient. And so he gives six examples from the Mosaic code whose full observance must go far beyond the letter of the Law. So, one must not just refrain from killing, but from doing any harm whatever to a brother and sister. In other words, the teaching of Jesus does not nullify the Mosaic Law, but goes far beyond it. This could be said to be the extension the Ten Commandments to their Christian counterpart – the Beatitudes.

Justin, too, was deeply concerned that the original teaching of Jesus be taught and defended against all forms of distortion, while at the same time recognising that this teaching can be developed and deepened.

The First Reading, taken from the beginning of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, highlights the paradox between the truth of Jesus’ message of Truth and Love, and the violently negative reactions it aroused. As Paul says very strikingly:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

It confounds the wisdom of the world:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom…

In the Gospel accounts, we find the Jews many times asking Jesus for signs to verify the claims he was making and the teaching he was giving. The Greeks loved to philosophise in their efforts to find the truth:

…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

This was the wisdom that Justin constantly taught in his debates with those who would deny the truth of the Gospel, or present distorted interpretations of it. It is a wisdom that the world still finds difficulty in accepting, but there many who do. Am I one of them?

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