Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (12 February 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with them to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:17-37 – ESV)
“The introduction to the Sermon on the Mount contains four sections: the setting (5:1–2), the Beatitudes (5:3–12), the identity of Jesus’ followers (5:13–16), and the teaching about the Law (5:17–20). .... The final part of the introduction (5:17–20) affirms an organic relation between Jesus’ teaching and the Torah. That relation is expressed as “fulfillment” (5:17). There is no direct parallel to any other Synoptic text (see Luke 16:16–17 for a vaguely similar saying). Within the passage there are tensions (the two “until” clauses in 5:18), and there are also tensions with the apparent abrogations of the Torah in 5:31, 33, 38. Nevertheless, the thrust of the passage as it stands is that Jesus’ fulfillment affirms and establishes the Torah rather than nullifies it. It uses the “light-heavy” distinction among the commandments that is well known from the rabbinic writings only to reject it in practice (as Rabbi Judah did). It challenges Jesus’ followers to a righteousness superior to that taught by the scribes and Pharisees.
“Whatever the origins and history of the material contained in Matt 5:17–20, its present form expressed the convictions of the Matthean community. The Torah remains in force. Jesus came not to destroy it but to fulfill it. Jesus’ program for interpreting and practicing the Torah is superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees .....
“The Beatitudes (5:3–12) are often presented in preaching and teaching as Jesus’ distinctive contribution to defining the elements of good character or as a list of Jesus’ values in opposition to those of the world. Or they are sometimes taken as part of an ‘ethics of discipleship’ intended only for those who follow Jesus already. But the Beatitudes are neither philosophical nor sectarian ethics. The Beatitudes are thoroughly Jewish in form and content. They challenged those who made up ‘Israel’ in Matthew’s time by delineating the kinds of persons and actions that will receive their full reward when God’s kingdom comes. They remind Christians today of the Jewish roots of their piety and challenge.” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 83-84.)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart: A good example of the higher standard Jesus is asking of his followers is found here in these verses. Leon Morris writes: “The prohibition is exactly as in the Old Testament (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:17), which is not surprising in a two-word quotation. In the ancient world generally it was held that a married man could have sexual adventures as long as they did not involve a married woman (which would mean violating the rights of her husband). A woman, however, was expected to have no such relations; she should be chaste before marriage and faithful after it. The command Jesus cites makes no distinction; people of both sexes were to remain faithful. Specifically he speaks of the man as the adulterer (v. 32; 19:9).” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 117-118.)
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear Jesus telling the people that he is not dispensing with the Torah and the sacred traditions. Nor is he simply rubber stamping them. The ancient focus on the Torah now gives way to a focus on Jesus who is the Christ. We live now, not by fidelity to law but by the very life of him who lived and died for us. St Paul summed it up beautifully: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). In this new way, much more is given, much more is possible and much more is expected.
In 1845, on his way to becoming a Catholic, John Henry Newman wrote his 400-page “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”. In that essay he describes the way ideas develop and grow. But he also outlines a living process that we are all part of:
“It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise in and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (Chapter 1, Section 1 – see http://www.newmanreader.org/works/development/chapter1.html )
I encourage you to return to this this text of Newman, read it slowly and thoughtfully – perhaps out loud. Listen with the ear of the heart. How does it apply to you personally?
Our lives – and the life of the Church – grow by means of the constant interplay between continuity and discontinuity. It is true to say: I am the person who was born n years ago and I am not that person because I have changed. How might I say this is true for me?