Homily for Sunday 6A, on Mt 5:17-37.
Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil them.
Throughout St. Matthew’s Gospel, we find a strong emphasis on the perfect accordance of Jesus with the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament. Matthew was a Jewish Christian, who wrote especially for Jewish Christians. His whole object would have been defeated had he admitted any sort of opposition between Jesus and the Torah, Israel’s Sacred Law. So his Gospel starts by establishing the identity of Jesus as legal inheritor of the promise to Abraham and to David. Matthew consistently shows how even details of Jesus’ life and ministry were foretold by the Scriptures. The miracles of Jesus, as reported in this Gospel, can be thought of as so much evidence, proving that he is indeed the promised and expected Messiah, the beloved Son who enjoys the favour of God his Father (3:17).
What, then, are we to make of the apparent opposition between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the Law? You have heard it said, says Jesus, repeatedly; but I say to you…
What are we to make of the constant conflict, to which the Gospel bears witness, between Jesus with his disciples, and those who are the acknowledged guardians and upholders of the Law? They watch Jesus, and listen to him; but far from recognising his coherence with the Law and Prophets, they conclude he is a rebel against them; an enemy and a blasphemer.
What, finally, are we to make of the sharp contrast between Law and Gospel, or Law and Spirit, which St. Paul makes with such ardent passion?
Confronted, for example, by Galatian Christians who are tempted to take up the full ritual observance of the Jewish law, Paul cries out: For freedom has Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all… (Gal 5:1-2).
One commentator who has helpfully addressed these questions, or apparent difficulties, is Pope Benedict XVI. The first volume of his Book Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2007, contains a luminous exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Benedict shows how we must set aside some easy solutions which are occasionally suggested, but which are clearly contrary both to the intention of St. Matthew, and to the truth of Jesus. So: Jesus is not merely a liberal, a reformer anxious to free people from the burdens of rules and regulations he regards as out of date.
Nor is Jesus merely a moralist, yet another one, who sets up a new code of behaviour: one that happens to be impossibly demanding. No: as Pope Benedict presents it, the Sermon on the Mount is the Torah of the Messiah, in fundamental continuity with the Torah of Moses. Jesus is a new Moses, giving a new Law from a new Sinai. The words of Jesus, like the words of Moses, come from God. But there is a great difference between them, because unlike Moses, Jesus speaks with his own authority, which is one with the authority of God himself.
Pope Benedict finds paradoxical confirmation of his interpretation in the writings of a contemporary Jewish Rabbi, Jacob Neusner. Neusner has no difficulty at all in accepting that the moral demands of Jesus can be seen as flowing naturally from the law of Moses. But speaking as an explicitly non-Christian Jew, Neusner finds himself protesting against the heart of everything Jesus says, which is the reference of all things to himself.
For us, who do believe in Jesus as the Son of God, all Neusner’s difficulties vanish. We understand that the Law and Prophets were given in the first place to prepare for the coming of Jesus; for the Incarnation of God’s Son. In both his words and his actions Jesus brings to fruition the whole purpose of the law and the prophets, and he reveals their inner meaning. Jesus does have authority to re-interpret the Torah by reference to himself, for he himself is God’s Word, God’s Revelation, of which the Torah is only an imperfect echo. Heaven and earth were made through him, and every smallest letter of the Torah also comes from him. So they stand together until the end of time (5:18): but then they will pass away together, leaving intact the Kingdom of Jesus, and all those who inherit it.
St. Augustine wrote a wonderful commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he relates all its precepts precisely to St. Paul’s teaching about the new Law of the Spirit, and also to the ever-valid, ever binding teaching of the 10 Commandments. Augustine shows that Jesus in this Sermon is not simply imposing on us a new list of obligations. No: he’s unfolding the consequences of the one law of charity, whose other name is the Holy Spirit. He’s pointing out to us a pathway towards beatitude – towards happiness – towards what it means to live truly in Him, as Sons of our heavenly Father.
With St. Matthew, then, with St. Paul, with St. Augustine, with Pope Benedict and the whole Church, we Christians continue to revere, and to read, the whole of the Old Testament. We accept it as God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And we see it all as pointing to Jesus, or as fulfilled in him. Now of course the Temple has gone, the rite of animal sacrifice has gone, the laws about ritual cleanness and about circumcision have gone: because in Christ we have a greater Temple, a definitive sacrifice, true cleanness and a new mode of belonging to God’s holy people.
Over these Sundays before lent begins, we read extracts from the Sermon on the Mount, and we find here, as always, a direct access to the teaching of Jesus: to his ever fresh, ever challenging commandments. Through these words recorded by St. Matthew, we hear Jesus himself addressing each of us personally, here and now; inviting us ever and anew to re-direct our lives in accordance with the radical newness we have in him.
And we hear his words in the context of our Eucharistic gathering. For we are here now in order to fulfil Jesus’ most concrete and explicit command. Not just: Put aside anger and lust and empty swearing – but: Eat my Body. Drink my blood. For in Word and in Sacrament; in Spirit and in Truth, Jesus abides with us always, as he said, even to the end of time (28:20).