February 9, 2014
One of the hardest problems we face in hearing or reading the Bible, is that of time. We don’t have time machines, and even if we did, we’d journey back in time with the ideas formed in us by our nationality, the communities in which we grew up, our family traditions, and the things we take for granted. If we tried to get back to the people for whom Matthew is writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, we’d land in a strange land, among unfamiliar people. No doubt they’d think us pretty odd, too.
The gospel today underscores the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St. Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee,” like the word “righteousness,” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners.
The Pharisees, or Pious Ones, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Jesus’ time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.
As the church grew, opened itself to non-Jews and developed its own teachings, a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St. Matthew, a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.
Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?
This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfill” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbor; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”
So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St. Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.
Some of the most tragic stories that emerge from wars involve prisoners or refugees, walking along roads, herded by brutal guards. The heroes of these stories are those who in the midst of their own miseries, despite the dangers, share their meager rations, water supplies, even clothing, to help those who have fallen by the side of the road, who might well be shot by the guards because they can’t keep up.
On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation.
Of course the strength to live for God and for others doesn’t come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength, that grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters, but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.
— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.