This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 5:17–37:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful— causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”
At one point, my mother was convinced that I would be a lawyer. As it turned out, I was only an adolescent. I discovered this truth when I became a parent myself, and had to deal with opposing counsel on every minute issue of the rules. No one argues around parental authority better than a teenager — in fact, no one studies it harder and knows it better. As a parent, I finally figured that much out, even if I intuited as much when I was an adolescent myself.
Adolescents have an excuse, of course, even if we don’t like to acknowledge it. Part of growing up is finding an identity separate from that of your parents, becoming your own person, and establishing your own path. All we can do is set the boundaries in place until they get clever enough to start working around them, and at that point we either reset the boundaries or we establish our authority in other ways. As most parents know, we usually try both, sometimes alternately and sometimes simultaneously. Eventually, we are left to hope and pray that they don’t utterly derail themselves — that some part of our wisdom and experience will speak to them, and that they will realize that we didn’t have the rules to spoil their fun but to keep them safe and happy.
And God says, “Welcome to my world.”
Today’s Gospel and reading speak directly to this same relationship between the Lord and His children. Moses received the commandments on the mountaintop as a gift from God, a way that we could know how to serve and please Him. But the gift from the Lord meant more than that; it also was our guide to pleasing ourselves by orienting our will to His. As Sirach prophesies in our first reading, “If you choose to keep the Commandments, they will save you.”
What do we learn in the Decalogue? The first three have to do with serving the Lord: to love God and serve no other man-created gods, to not make any gods ourselves to worship, and to not insult Him by presumptuously invoking His name for our purposes. After that, the rest of the commandments have to do with not making ourselves miserable. Take a day off every week, treat your parents well, don’t get envious, don’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill.
What’s so difficult or imposing about those? If God hadn’t written that on a stone tablet, someone would make a fortune off that list today as a self-help book. Ten Steps to a Happier You!
Unfortunately, we immediately became adolescents, looking for the loopholes in the law that allow us to make ourselves miserable and crazy. The Lord gave Moses over 600 more rules for life in the desert, and the Israelites chafed at them, too. By the time Jesus began his mission, the law was used as a cudgel by the temple authorities and a game by most others to parse out where we can do what we want without penalty.
And it’s not just the Israelites, either; to this day, we tend to look at the Lord’s commandments and Jesus’ teachings as bonds rather than liberation. We chafe at them because we fall into the oldest sin in the world — the desire to be our own god. That is the original Original Sin, the presumption that we can know good and evil better than God Himself. We are like every teenager we know or were as we try to establish our identities separate from the Lord rather than embrace our status as His children under His authority and protection.
This Gospel reading sounds dire if read through that prism. Jesus isn’t just warning us that we’ll go to Hell for what we do, but even for what we think and desire! Who could possibly pass that test? There’s no escape!
That, however, is not what Jesus teaches in this Gospel. He’s not condemning the whole human race for what is in our hearts at any one time. Instead, Jesus is teaching that the law is meant to serve us, not bind us, by acting as a teaching to change our hearts. We are meant to embrace the law, not dodge it and argue technicalities to get off the hook for the consequences that follow.
Jesus is telling His disciples that the Law is the heart of God, and that our salvation comes from forming our own hearts to His. That is why Jesus says He has come to fulfill it to “the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter,” because it is the full path to salvation. He writes that law on our hearts and gives us the grace through Christ to recognize and embrace it. We are set free from the bonds of this world through His law, not enslaved by it or impoverished by it.
In order to accept that, though, we have to surrender ourselves to His will and His wisdom. That’s about as easy to do as to tell your parents they turned out to be right about some warning they gave you. Speaking of which, I may owe my folks a call today …
The front-page image is a detail from “Communion of the Apostles” by Luca Signorelli c.1512. Currently housed at the Diocesean Museun of Cortana, Tuscany. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.