EPIPHANY VI - A - 17 MATTHEW 5. 21-37
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” We heard Jesus make this declaration in last week’s passage from Matthew where he also challenged, and at the same time, warned Israel to renew her divine vocation to be salt and light to the world.
Christ came into the world to institute a new covenant based on love. As the Son of God his authority is greater than that of Moses. His repeated phrase, “but I say to you,“ is a statement of total divine authority. Christ proclaims the new law, the righteousness leading toward perfection, to which the Mosaic law and the prophets pointed.
In Christ we see how God intended for us to live in accordance with his commandments. Jesus fulfills the law by being a living example of how to become fully human. All who choose to follow him must do the same. This new way, which Jesus had come to pioneer and make possible, goes down deep into the roots of personality and provides a different pattern of behavior altogether.
Jesus shifts the focus from the externals to the inner attitude of the heart. For all improvement of character must begin from within.
In today’s passage Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount by contrasting his teaching with the teaching of the law. “You have heard it said…but I say.” By this He reveals the deeper meaning of several of the Old Testament laws, broadening their implications.
Murder isn’t limited to the physical act of killing another human being, but is expanded to include anger. We can just as easily destroy another human being with our tongue. Adultery is an act of lust devoid of love. Divorce was allowed under the Old Testament as a concession to human weakness, but is not what God intended. Oaths would not be necessary if we were truthful in our dealings with each other and so on.
When we stop and look at the 10 Commandments, or the law of Moses, we see that the first four commandments have to do with our duty to God and the remainder our duty to our neighbor. The first and great commandment begins with love and Jesus goes on to summarize all ten with love.
If loving God is our number one priority, He says, and this is as it should be, then, love of neighbor will follow. That is what Christ meant when he said on these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets. Love is the basis of the law, not the love of man, but the forgiving and reconciling Love of God.
How practical is his teaching today? Just as practical as it was during the time of Jesus. Like the prophet says in today’s first lesson, “if you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. For God has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.” It always comes down to choice doesn’t it?
Jesus’ fulfillment of the law does not lighten the expectation. Rather, it asks for a deeper connection between the inner attitude and the outward action. Following the will of God as revealed by Jesus is not easily reduced to a written code. What Jesus is asking his hearers to do is to look at the choices they make and the motivation for their actions in a new way.
That change of perspective starts with an inner transformation. It is almost like the transition from child to adult. The questions change from ‘how much can I get away with?’ or ‘What is the absolute minimum I am required to do?’ to an emphasis on caring and responsibility arising not from external limits, but from an inner sense of what is right.
For those Jews who heard his message, and for those of us who hear it today, it represents an important change and is an essential ingredient in understanding Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Although we are no strangers to preoccupation with the externals, we still need to hear the emphasis in this gospel on what is internal.
We need to hear the invitation in Jesus’ teaching to go beyond the surface of things to discover what is essential. We need to hear the call of the radical new claim of love in our lives, so that we are delivered from doing things merely because they are expected or correct or because they look good.
We need to face our inner motivations, desires, and priorities and to hold them up to the new standard of honesty and love which Jesus gives to his followers. In essence we need to examine and respond to the demands of our relationship to Christ, in order for us to live the radical new claim of love in our lives that comes from our choosing to follow Him.
True the response comes from individual self-understanding and action. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom was not addressed to individuals but to a community of believers. It is as a community we gather to hear and respond to his words.
We may come to Church seeking inner transformation, but we also come to a place where spiritual experience is spoken about and shared. The Love, the new covenant, is not just an abstract philosophical concept or moral precept each individual Christian seeks.
It is a reality here among us. And we are brought in touch with the reality of the love of Christ each time we celebrate The Holy Eucharist. The reality of God’ presence is available, not just for personal renewal, but for strengthening the community that Jesus came to build, and for our living out the radical love of Christ so that we may please God in both will and deed.
Throughout this chapter, Jesus is not just giving moral commands. He is unveiling a whole new way of being human. It looks impossible, and it is without the help of God’s grace. AMEN+