Sunday reflection by Fr Koenraad Van Gucht, SDB
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A Lectio divina on Mt 5:17-37
The image of Jesus that emerges from today’s Gospel passage may seem strange – a jealous Jesus insisting in detail on the law. It is not the kind of Jesus that evokes enthusiasm. We don’t expect a Jesus who has little regard for the disciple who disobeys even one of the least of the commandments of the law. However, and this adds to our surprise, Jesus has come to fulfil the law in its entirety, and with a radicalism that may seem to us impossible. But this is what he himself proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount which remains, even after twenty centuries, the heart of the message of Jesus.
At that time: Jesus said to his disciples: 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; 26 truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 31“It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply `Yes’ or `No'; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.”
I. READ: UNDERSTAND WHAT THE TEXT IS SAYING AND FOCUS ON HOW IT SAYS IT
Today’s gospel passage is long and difficult. It has given rise to many interpretations, often contradictory. It would be easier to understand if it were presented in shorter more homogeneous extracts.
When Jesus had told his disciples what he wanted them to be, salt of the earth and light of the world, he went on to tell them how – by obeying the law and the prophets to the letter. The written word of God is not a topic for discussion but a matter of obedience, to be observed even to the last letter. Jesus confirms this principle, quoting three legal norms and explaining their demands. The laws quoted do not touch directly the relationship between the believer and God and do not permit exceptions. They are precepts of the Ten Commandments which govern inter-personal relationships and the things that threaten them: homicide, divorce, oath-taking.
We should note that the laws and the norms that Jesus deduces from them are merely examples of the reason for which Jesus came, namely to bring the law to completion. It is not his mission to abolish it. The will of God is more obvious than heaven and earth, which for ancient man were a symbol of firmness and constancy. Before God – and this is the thing that really shocks us – the one who observes the law and teaches others to observe it will be considered great. The one who does not observe even the smallest detail of the law and teaches others to do the same will be considered little. God’s judgement on us depends on observance of the law. Jesus concludes his explanation with another demand, even more unexpected: the disciple must be better than the best of his contemporaries, the Pharisees, who were obsessed with obeying the law in their daily life.
The four legal norms serve, at first sight, to confirm the principle: they are an example of the absolute validity of the law. Jesus clarifies what he expects of his disciples. The four cases are formulated in the same way: the commandment is introduced with the words “you have learnt how it was said.”
Not only must you not kill, but you must not ill-treat, even with the slightest of insults. The one who is not on good terms with his brother, cannot be on good terms with God. Brotherly love is a prior condition for divine worship. It makes more sense, therefore, to settle accounts with your brother before presenting yourself to your Judge.
Not only is it forbidden to have relations with your neighbour’s wife, but she must not be the object of lustful desire, even if unfulfilled. The gravity of the prohibition is shown by the seriousness of the measure to be taken: it is better to cut off a member of the body that causes you to sin than to be totally condemned.
Not only is divorce forbidden, but divorce as allowed by the Law of Moses leads inevitably to adultery, for the woman rejected as well as for the man who marries her. Jesus contemplates only one exception: one who does not live marriage with purity and fidelity can be repudiated.
Not only is it forbidden to swear a false oath, but there should be no deception. Say ‘Yes’ if you mean yes and ‘No’ if you mean no. The believer should be worthy of trust in all he does or says, and so he should not feel the need to support his own personal honesty, either with the authority of another nor with an appeal to his own integrity. “Anything more than this comes from the evil one”.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Matthew presents us not just with a collection of sayings of Jesus but with his position in relation to the law of God and the basic attitude the Christian ought to have in its regard. Jesus of Nazareth was not a liberal preacher, much less an anarchist. He wanted to fulfil God’s law not just to the last letter but also in what remained unwritten, that is, the primary intention of the law. That is the secret of his radicalism. If his demands seem utopian and impracticable, it is because we do not see them from his point of view. Anyone who, like Jesus, puts the Kingdom of God at the centre of his life, should not allow himself to be led astray in his desires or in his actions. A community that betrays the obedience it owes to the law of God, and disciples who do not practise a level of righteousness higher than that of the rivals of Jesus, will not succeed in becoming Christian.
Among good Christians, as we like to think we are, it is normal to deceive ourselves into believing that we are good enough, just because we do not kill, or take our neighbour’s wife, or because we always tell the truth, and that we are not prejudiced. We think we are living up to God’s demands. It is not by chance, then, that his demands seem burdensome. Jesus did not think that way. He did not think that the price we pay to obey God’s law is proof of the goodness of our lives. The four examples referred to show this. In response to the law of God, written in antiquity, Jesus makes some unheard-of demands. External obedience to God’s will was not enough for him, and he was not satisfied with those who lived by the prescriptions of the law. It was necessary at every moment to seek the non-written will of God, to obey the intention of the law and not just the letter.
From someone like Jesus who was viewed by his contemporaries as an unrepentant liberal, and even a transgressor of the prescriptions of the law on eating, we would have expected a very different teaching. There is no doubt that it would have been easier to be followers of someone who attached less importance to God’s will, or rejected its demands, or reduced them to when it suits us to respect them. But he was not like that! He himself said that, if we want one day to inherit his kingdom and rejoice in his presence, we must try to live obedient lives to the very limit of what is possible. This is what Jesus asks of us – a level of obedience that to us seems impossible.
It is evident that we must not kill. But the disciple of Jesus cannot be satisfied simply with not taking someone’s life, if he continues to deny his neighbour the place in his heart that he deserves. Hatred, insults, inability to forgive, wishing evil or refusing good, failure to help, ignoring someone, or refusing to speak to someone – all these are ways of denying the life and the rights of our neighbour. Jesus did not demand of his disciples a goodness that limits itself to doing harm to no one. He wanted his followers to treat others well, even those who do not deserve it. How can we consider ourselves good simply because we respect God, if we do not also respect those with whom we live? Fine words are not enough if they are not accompanied by acts of mercy.
We may think that adultery is something far removed from our lives, thank God. But that is not enough to render us pure in heart, as Jesus wants us to be. It is not enough to avoid sin – we must stop desiring it. Jesus is not satisfied with us only because we do not take someone else’s spouse. It is not the hands that render the body of a Christian impure, but impure sentiments and intentions. Simply not giving one’s body to another does not guarantee that our most intimate desires, or thoughts that have not been confessed, are directed solely to God and to our dear ones or those to whom we owe fidelity. Bodily abstinence could be only a sign of disinterest or lack of love. Our neighbour must be respected also in our hearts. This is what was new in the teaching of Jesus. In the light of this demand, who among us can consider ourselves already good?
The Christian should not swear, because his constant attitude of truthfulness should make an oath unnecessary. Unfortunately, we have learnt a thousand excuses for lying, so as not to feel bad about things we have done. Even if we have often been deceived, this does not make our own lies less culpable. The fact that others deceive us whenever they can, must not make liars of us if we aspire to become disciples of Jesus. What others do cannot become the law of our behaviour. Maybe there is nothing shameful in our lives, but this is not enough to make us authentic disciples of Jesus. The disciple’s reason for being truthful is to be found in Jesus who does not want his followers to be liars or to have to support their statements by oath. If what we say corresponds, always, with what we think, then we are living as he wants us to live, and this, in itself, is our reward.
Respect for our neighbour, for his life, his love and honour, is an exercise of Christian living that must come from the heart. Merely external respect for others does not mean that we have respect for God’s law in our hearts. The fact that these demands of Jesus are extreme does not make them optional. Jesus knows very well how much they cost us, and he has said so in language that is particularly hard: it is better to lose an eye or a hand for a time, than to lose God forever.
We must have God within us, in the depths of our hearts, in order to want what God wills with all our strength. Only people who love God more than self can respect their neighbour as themselves. If God and his kingdom are not present in our lives, taking first place in our hearts, our hands and our sentiments will threaten the life of our neighbour. That would be our perdition. It is only when we return to God and respect his will that we are able to see in our neighbour a brother to be defended, respected and loved. God and his kingdom are near to us when we draw near to our neighbour and love him as we love ourselves.