Sunday reflection: Matthew 5:17-37
posted at 10:01 am on February 16, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion.
Today’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.”
Two days ago, many of us celebrated Valentine’s Day with candy hearts, cards with hearts all over them, heart-shaped boxes, and so on. It’s a fun holiday, especially for candy makers, florists, and dentists one supposes, a holiday that celebrates the “sweethearts” of our lives and the heart as the center of romance and infatuation. This passage, though, deals with the heart in an entirely different way, and in more than one respect.
What, in Christian terms, is the “heart”? It is the place where the will intersects with the intellect, the seat of decision-making. This was the ancient understanding of the heart, and when the Law is written on it, it means that love dwells there — the love of God and the Holy Spirit, with our assent and cooperation. That cooperation is also a blend of will and intellect, and it aligns us not just with the letter of the Law but also its spirit of love. This love is caritas (and/or agape) rather than eros, however, and this is what Jesus instructs in this central teaching to Christianity.
Prior to this teaching, the understanding of the Mosaic law had fallen to a mere, rote, physical compliance with it. The law in that sense had become an end to itself, but the Mosaic law was intended to form the hearts of God’s people to His love, not just statutory compliance. Instead, the contemporary understanding then was that it was enough for a a man to avoid adultery, rather than put it out of his heart as an injury to God’s love for us. We could remain in furious anger with our brethren as long as we did not assault them, or worse. This is the Pharisaical error that Jesus will correct in both word and deed.
Jesus tells his disciples that his mission is to fulfill the Law, by impressing on them the need to form our hearts in the Law and in love of God and neighbor. The sin comes from the heart; sinful physical actions are a consequence of that sin. Jesus stresses this in the hyperbolic suggestions to tear out one’s eye and cut off one’s hand rather than abide sin. Sin is a greater issue than physical disabilities, and sin goes beyond the physical — it starts in the heart, where the will and intellect join, and where sin rejects the caritas we are meant to show to God and our neighbors.
Our other readings today emphasize this aspect of the Law. In Sirach 15:15-20, the prophet warns that God judges the heart rather than act like a policeman: “He understands every man’s deed,” and not just sees the deeds. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 that the Christian church speaks “a wisdom to those who are mature,” a hidden wisdom “not of this age” but eternal. This wisdom “God has revealed to us through the spirit,” to the hearts of Christians who allow themselves to be formed by the Holy Spirit in love.
This is the difference between slavery and discipleship, between servants and true children of God. Slaves and servants follow rules; children in the image of God embrace His love, and the Law already written on their hearts. Jesus sets the bar high for his disciples and all who would call themselves Christians — not just to follow checkboxes of rules and regulations, but to live their lives according to the Spirit and caritas, both externally and internally.
The heart, then, means much more than just the seat of infatuation and the manifestation of eros for Christians. It is the place where the Holy Spirit dwells, when we willingly and actively invite the Paraclete through prayer to form our hearts in the Law, rather than pay lip service to it through mere physical compliance. This understanding, especially when joined with the Beatitudes, provides the heart of Christian teaching.