“I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).
Sixth Sunday of the Year
Sir 15:15-20; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Matt 5:17-37
Today’s Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is helpful to know that Jesus’ defense of his teaching as fulfilling rather than abolishing the Law follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Chapter 5. This context suggests that Jesus may have been criticized for replacing the Commandments with the Beatitudes, his idealistic invitation to live now in God’s Kingdom as poor, mournful, meek, pure, justice-seeking, peace-making disciples persecuted by the world for their prophetic witness.
So, Jesus makes clear that what he is proposing is the deeper spiritual challenge that exceeds the letter of the Law. He gives examples. The Commandment not to kill includes the root cause of murder—anger and provocative speech, calling someone a fool. So, stop conflict early with reconciliation. Adultery begins with lust in the heart. So, practice purity of heart and it will save your soul from destruction. The letter of the Law allowed divorce and release from oaths, but the spirit of the Law calls us to be faithful to our promises.
Jesus was teaching a morality much deeper than the legal casuistry taught by the scribes and Pharisees, who upheld the letter of the Law externally but were unfaithful in spirit and taught others to avoid its interior demands. The Kingdom of God is grounded in the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, and to obey this was not less but more demanding than just keeping the rules. Love requires the hard work of discernment in each case to determine the balance of mercy and justice. Love means negotiating differences with our opponents and respecting the dignity of others in thought and speech. Love takes the Commandments to the next level of wisdom and compassion in dealing with dilemmas and the need to compromise.
Many of the cases where Jesus was accused of breaking the Law came down to his application of compassion to outweigh the Sabbath rule, mercy rather than judgment to the woman guilty of adultery, human need over ritual in purity laws, the freedom of love to associate with sinners and pagans and to incur legal contamination to reach out to lepers, outcasts and the unwashed poor. Love, even for his enemies, ultimately takes Jesus to the cross as an outlaw and a heretic. Condemned by the self-righteous, rejected by the Sanhedrin and the Roman State, Jesus reveals the immense, unlimited mercy of God for sinners.
The challenge of today’s Word is that it makes us dependent on the Spirit to live in the real world, where only encounter, dialogue and accompaniment enable us to navigate our differences without judging others, without the satisfaction of being letter perfect and never making a mistake. The impossibility of total purity of intention and motive makes us all sinners together, humbly praying for God’s grace and forgiveness. It is the Beatitudes not the Commandments that rescue us from despair, for blessed are those who know that they are sinners who are still loved unconditionally by God and saved by Jesus Christ. This is the joy of the Gospel.