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.”
In my youth, I practiced law. I’m not talking about having graduated from law school, or even high school at that time. My practice was entirely within my family, and I was my only client. I contorted the rules and regulations of the household to my advantage, to both the amusement and exasperation of my mother. F. Lee Bailey couldn’t have nitpicked better than I did, but in all honesty, he had a better track record of success than me. The point of all this lawyering was to push the rules far enough to get away with whatever it was I wanted to do at the time. Business was booming for a while too, until I had to get out into the real world and navigate through a much more complex set of rules and realities.
By the way, my son took up the family business later, and was much better at it than me.
People complain about rules and balk at the boundaries, but they like rules a lot more than they’ll usually admit. From the time we are old enough to realize that we can transgress, we want to know where the lines are. Sometimes that’s because we want to be good and not accidentally do wrong, and at other times it’s because we want to know just how bad we can be without getting into trouble. The brighter those lines get, the more secure we feel in our own actions, and our judgment of the actions of others, but also the bolder we get in actions that fall just short of the lines.
What we miss in this reaction are the reasons for the laws, and their purpose. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus explains to His disciples that they are missing the forest for the trees when it comes to God’s laws, which the Israelites have come to see as an end unto themselves.
What purpose did the Lord intend by giving us laws at all? The Israelites receive the first laws — the Ten Commandments, after the Exodus from Egypt. God called them out of their slavery in order to unify Israel as a nation of priests to bring salvation through the Word of God, and gives them the tablets as the basis for that law. This purpose is made clear in our first reading from Sirach: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.”
God’s law, therefore, exists to help us choose between “life and death, good and evil,” and to form the basis of a human community that will one day include the entire world. When those simple precepts left too much room for interpretation, Moses delivered hundreds of more laws from the Lord to keep the Israelites from falling into sin, apostasy, and division. Eventually, however, the Israelites did what we all do — to see the law as the end in itself and use it to justify our own actions while condemning those who transgress even by minute amounts. Rather than see the loving purpose of the laws, God’s people miss the forest for the trees and cling to the law itself rather than salvation, and use it as a means to schism and separation rather than unity.
In this passage, Jesus makes clear the challenge and the nature of true fellowship within the law. What are the four examples Jesus uses to remind His disciples about salvation within the law? Murder, adultery, divorce, and fraud — all actions of serious disunity and damage to the whole community. Those are serious crimes, and were already severely punished in these communities, but Jesus tells them that they’ve missed the point of the law. It’s not just to allow people to be punished for their transgressions, but to form the hearts of the people so that they reject even the precepts for those actions.
Thus, Jesus warns, when we set our hearts on division and hatred, we have already rejected the law. It is not enough merely to follow the law by our actions; we need to let the Lord write them on our hearts, that spiritual core where our intellect and will combine. When we do, we enter into solidarity with one another and harmony with God, who loves us and provides the law for that purpose.
In other words, we have to act beyond our own native impulses and think of others as well as ourselves. Being adolescent lawyers looking for ways to rationalize sin only leads us to destruction. Paul understood this, and explained it in our second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, who had fallen into precisely this kind of rationalization and division. “We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,” Paul writes, “not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.” The Lord provides these laws to form us for the eternal, not the momentary and petty desires of the moment. “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart,” Paul continues, “what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
The Lord has prepared us to live in eternity with the communion of saints in harmony with each other and Himself. When we rely on the law as an end to itself, or especially to rationalize our own sins while condemning others for theirs, we don’t just miss the forest for the trees — we miss our own salvation. If we do that, we’ll end up representing ourselves once again in the end without an Advocate, but with a fool for a client.
The front page image is a detail from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Roselli, from the Sistine Chapel, 1481-2.
“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.