Many people who find themselves at Mass this Sunday will find themselves thinking “boy, this is a long Gospel!” And they’d be right… there’s 21 verses worth of Good News that’s going to be proclaimed to us, as opposed to the usual 8-10. I’ve put together a few thoughts breaking open those 21 verses – and the other readings for Mass – in hopes that you and I might be more disposed to hear what God has to say to us in these readings. If you want to find them online for yourself, follow this link over to the USCCB website and have a read for yourself.
Picking up where we left off last week, this week’s Gospel (Matthew 5:17-37) presents Jesus stating that He has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The law, as Jesus’ first hearers would have understood it, is made up 613 ethical and ceremonial precepts that Israelite men and women were expected to abide by. Jesus’ commentary on this law, and His challenge to those who keep it to it’s letter is His desire that they imbue their righteous actions with love. To do this, Jesus takes various familiar statements and takes them a step further (“you have heard it said/but I say…”). His intention is to offer a critique of some of the ways their faith has developed which He deems harmful, and also to challenge them to live out a higher sense of justice & moral piety.
Jesus addresses four particular areas in this Sundays Gospel: anger, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of oaths. The first two areas he deals with, anger and adultery, are presented from the perspective of their related commandments: thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not commit adultery. Jesus’ commentary on these is a challenge to look deeper – you don’t need to murder someone or wind up in bed with them to commit murder or adultery. These sins begin in the heart (unforgiveness, hatred, lust, etc) – and are sins whether or not they grow into the more serious actions. It’s important for us to remember that moral evil starts with a thought we entertain, leading to a decision we make long before the action actually takes place. The image He uses of tearing out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand is less a suggestion that we harm ourselves, and more clearly a challenge to fight temptations and avoid the near occasion of sin. It is better for us to give up some part of our freedom, than to lose our relationship with Him on earth and ultimately in Heaven.
Third, Jesus deals with divorce. Here, it is helpful to know the context of first century Judaism, where women were not considered legal citizens. Moses had allowed divorce in earlier times because men were killing off their wives to avoid the charge of adultery. Jesus here affirms the indissolubility of marriage, and elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 19) he addresses this question by commenting “Moses allowed divorce because of (our) hardness of heart… but in the beginning it was not so. Jesus’ intent is not to cause pain, but to set out a clear and high ideal of human relationships which is made difficult by our hard hearts.
Finally, he addresses the swearing of oaths. People usually swear oaths before God (Do you swear to tell the truth… so help you God?) Again, there are commandments which address this issue (do not take God’s name in vain/do not bear false witness) – all of which makes it a serious sin to swear a false oath or to knowingly break an oath. As Christians, we are called to defend the truth to the best of our ability… because it is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).
You might look at all of this and think it’s pretty heavy and hard to do. This is where our first and second reading start to make sense. The first reading (Sirach 15:15-20) is a reminder that we have to choose to keep the commandments – the choice before us is between good and evil, life and death. But the reward for keeping these commandments, as presented by St. Paul in the second reading (1 Corinthians 2:6-10) is beyond our ability to see, hear, or imagine.
What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
-1 Corinthians 2:9