Today’s gospel reading has challenges, both in interpretation and finally in acting on Jesus’ words. Other biblical selections open up reflections in the ‘Wisdom’ tradition on making choices. We choose what to do. How much of the Jewish laws were binding on Christians was a burning issue in the first years of the Church when there were both Jewish and Gentile converts now living together. It is rarely a concern for us now, in general keeping laws seen as ‘moral’ but not bound by the ‘Purity Code’ of ritual clean/unclean practices.
The readings are available online here.
This book, in the Wisdom tradition of Israel, is known from the Greek version (The Septuagint) not accepted in the Hebrew Bible and may be left out in Protestant editions or included as ‘Apocrypha’. The Latin title means ‘church book’ but modern translations more often use the name ‘Sirach’ from the Greek name of the writer’s grandfather, ‘Jesus Ben Sira’. It is a late work written around 180 BCE. The author was a teacher in Jerusalem, but he had travelled extensively and was aware of current Hellenistic ideas. While willing to make use of some of them, he wants to shows the superiority of the Jewish beliefs.
The stress in our selection on keeping the commandments points towards the gospel reading. Ben Sira has given us ‘one of the clearest statements on freedom of the will’ in the Bible, (Alexander A. Di Lella, OFM, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.) This selection emphasises that people have both the choice and the power to obey God’s Law. Ben Sira praises God’s wisdom and knowledge and insists that with human freedom no one can blame God for their actions. An argument is still heard today that if God knows what we are going to do, we have no freedom, but Ben Sira will have none of that. He urges his readers to make their choice of the way to follow – the way of obedience leading to life – or rebellion by sinfulness which means death. This is a re-wording of Deuteronomy 30:15-10 when Moses presented the Law the Hebrew people and call on them to ‘choose life!’
Psalm 118/119:1-2-4-5-17-18, 33-36
This is a short selection from the longest of the Psalms, one of praise for the Law, in Hebrew the ‘Torah’. The opening verse sets out the theme of the happiness found in following all the commands of the Law. Several sections of prayers to live as faithful to this calling have been selected for our reading.
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
St Paul continues to warn the Corinthians that the special wisdom of the world some of them had been bragging about is a false understanding of the real wisdom which comes from God and revealed through the Spirit. There is an abrupt break in Christian understanding – unlike the usual human reflections on what is the right way to behave, the source of our life decision comes from the crucifixion of Jesus, which paradoxically overturns all human ways of thinking but brings about the abundance of happiness beyond any imagining.
Today’s selection is a long one, though there are marked passages that can be left out when read at mass. First there is a strong endorsement of the Law and the Prophets. (The ‘dot’ and ‘little stroke’ refer to the writing of the Law in Hebrew script, and thus symbolise the whole.) Many find this a difficult part of Matthew and there are pages on it in the commentaries. It appears to be contradictory as Jesus states he has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but then proceeds in following verses to lay out a number of changes based on his own authority. What can unblock the difficulty is a consideration of what Matthew frequently tells us: Jesus has come to ‘fulfil’ things that were written down in the Older Testament. (The Greek word often translated as ‘fulfil’ is ‘complete’ in our reading.) What happened, or what was said in the past may be described as ‘provisional’ or ‘pointing ahead’ to what comes in Jesus’ person and in his teaching which will carry out the deeper intent of God to bring all to perfection. Borrowing a phrase from N. T. Wright, the two seemingly contradictory ‘schemes of thought fit together when seen as a whole’ – how God’s faithfulness worked with human failure, sinfulness, and misunderstanding in the long history from the time of creation.
Matthew began his fulfilment texts from the beginning of the gospel with the birth-record. He ties Jesus to Abraham who was to be a name in which many would be blessed, and then to the ideal King of David. Jesus was said to be the one promised of virgin birth as the child called ‘God-with-Us’, quoting a prophecy from Isaiah. Other older texts, some in unusual or even obscure ways linked him to the Exodus, the deportation to Babylon, the return from exile, even being a Nazarene from Galilee. Thus, Jesus is named often as the Messiah (the Hebrew term, in Greek of the gospels, ‘Christ’) which carries a richness of promises from the past now to be fulfilled in his life-death-resurrection. Today’s selection links him especially to God giving the Law through Moses, for the Law itself comes to a new definition as he demonstrates his authority to explain what God asks for.
There is, however, a further aspect which also clarifies what is ‘fulfilment.’ At each stage of the past history, there was a failure that required a reassessment, and a re-thinking of how God could still be faithful to what had been promised. For example, the kings following David reached a level of corruption that brought about the downfall of the kingdoms and the deportation and exile abroad. Such upsetting times meant that people began looking for a longer term meaning, still trusting God would act in the future. Each stage still pointed forward, and all of these finally come to be seen in Jesus. He becomes both the Son of God and a human being who will carry out God’s intent of renewal and salvation. That gives a complex background for what Matthew means by ‘fulfilment’ or ‘completion’. Offering a new and deeper understanding of the Law and the prophets is something Jesus is doing in this long collection of teachings.
The Law’s requirements were often things that could be observed by others, and thus the opening words of keeping the commands are followed by a warning: what Jesus saw in many of the Pharisees and scribes of his time was strict observance of rules, in a way that could be seen (and admired) from the outside, no matter what was going inside the mind and heart. Thus, he warns Christians that they must do much more, must be changed by an inward dedication to God’s love. As Daniel J. Harrington puts it, ‘moving into the realm of interior dispositions from which evil actions proceed’. Visible or outward obedience – even in all minute details – is not enough. What Jesus asks for involves a change of inner intent. We can then see how this is described in the following statements, all beginning with ‘You have heard.. but I tell you…’
With this as a guideline, we can see how many of these work. First, for example, he emphasises it is not enough to refrain from killing someone. Carrying murderous anger in one’s heart, or even mild contempt for others (as in the example of the insults), is not fulfilling the command of Jesus to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
Jesus often uses exaggerations – or hyperbole – to stress a point which is not meant to be taken literally, but generally that does not apply here. What we might like to pass over as ‘just common human nature’ should be seen as seriously affecting our relationship with God and with other people. Perhaps one of the most ignored now is casual swearing, since it doesn’t seem to hurt others. John P. Meier indicates this is a serious mistake. People are not to think they can claim God as their witness, or control God for their own purposes. Swearing an oath does not strengthen the speech of an honest person: one should be the kind of person who can be trusted when they simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without trying to make it sound more convincing by calling in God.
A particularly difficult issue today, as then, is divorce. Jewish practice had been that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. A wife had no option, and could be left with no support. One school of rabbis, however, held that the husband could only divorce for adultery, and the question may have arisen as to which view Christians should take. In other New Testament texts, the command is absolute but, in this passage, Matthew has a seeming exception which the Jerusalem Bible translates as ‘fornication’ – an old-fashioned word which is not clear as to details. The Greek word is porneia which is also vague but the idea is some serious form of sexual irregularity. Various churches and times have taken the adultery exception in different ways, but we can see that the general thrust of Jesus’ words is that a true marriage is meant to be a permanent union.
It has been said that all the commands in these chapters don’t fit the ‘real world’ and are just an ‘ideal’ we are not expected to attain. But that is not how Matthew presents them; rather, however challenging they are, Jesus stresses their importance for all disciples. In this part of the discourse, failings are not explicitly discussed, but later in these chapters (6:9-13), such lapses are covered when Jesus gives us the model prayer in which we ask to be forgiven, and to forgive. The liturgy selections skip this, perhaps because it is so familiar and recited in every mass when we are expected to mean what we say about our wrong doing and how we react to others.
Note: I have borrowed from N. T. Wright massive study, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, in which explains how St Paul deals with the past in the light of Jesus’s coming and I have adapted the process to Matthew’s ideas of ‘fulfilment’.