6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 12, 2017
Matt 5: 17-37
1 Cor 2: 6-10
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them” (Matt 5: 17).
2 weekends ago we began 5 Sundays of gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ new law for the new people of God created by the new covenant he came to establish. The 1st 3 of those gospel readings come consecutively from Matt 5: the Beatitudes, the similes of Christians as salt, light, and a city on a mountain, and today’s specifics about Christian attitudes and behavior.
Sermon on the Mount
by Carl Bloch
As we listen to Christ’s words in the gospel today, we hear his teaching that his new covenant, this new relationship between God and humanity, doesn’t destroy the old covenant— the one mediated by Moses on Mt. Sinai, expressed in the Torah, and preached by the prophets. Rather, Jesus takes that covenant deeper, carrying its wisdom and holiness into our hearts, our attitudes, beyond our external behavior.
What Jesus teaches is what St. Paul calls “a wisdom to those who are mature, not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away” (1 Cor 2:6). By “mature,” Paul refers to spiritual maturity, a mature Christian discipleship. By “the rulers of this age,” he means both the Roman Empire—Caesar, his governors, and subject kings like Herod; and the Devil and his cohorts who wield so much power in the present age. For us, Paul still means the Devil, of course, and the earthly powers of our age: presidents, monarchs, dictators, armies, the Fortune 500, the mass media, academia, et al. Pope Francis probably would add, “church careerists.” These are “the rulers of this age.” In the end, only God’s wisdom will remain. For now, that wisdom is “mysterious, hidden” (2:7)—in the cross of our Savior. On the Last Day, it will be evident to the entire world, and those who lived by the wisdom of the world will be, in Jesus’ words, “liable to judgment” (Matt 5:22), while those who embraced the cross and the “righteousness” of Christ (5:6,10,20) “will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).
The 1st specific teaching that Jesus presents to us is an extension of the 5th commandment. For Jesus, the commandment includes much more than the avoidance of murder. Physical violence stems from one’s heart, one’s attitude. So Jesus condemns anger—not the feeling we all experience when we think we’ve been wronged, whose arousal is automatic, so to speak; but the feeling that we nurture and savor, the one that we obsess over as we hold a grudge, plot how to get even, make rash judgments, attack the reputation of someone, hate to the degree that if we thought we could get away with it we would do physical violence. Jesus warns us not to dare to approach the altar of sacrifice—this altar here—without reconciling ourselves to our brother or sister—which means, in the 1st place, our fellow believers, and then more generally the rest of mankind. That’s why we begin almost every Eucharist by calling to mind our sins and repenting of them. That’s why we exchange a symbolic sign of peace before coming toward the altar for the Eucharist. That’s why the Church makes the sacrament of Reconciliation so readily available to us weak sinners.
Many of you may be thinking, “I’d like to be reconciled with so-and-so, but she has hurt me so badly that I don’t want anything to do with her”—and you call her a real so-and-so! Or you may think, “I’d like to be reconciled, but it takes 2 to reconcile, and that’s just not gonna happen.” No, peace and harmony aren’t always possible. The key question is our attitude: Would I really want to be reconciled? Can I wish that other person God’s blessings? Do I pray for my enemies, as Jesus commands? Even if I no longer count them as friends, can I at least be polite when they’re around and not speak ill of them when they’re not around? Do I ask Jesus to help me be more forgiving, after the example that he himself set?
Then Jesus speaks of sexual morality. Avoiding the physical act of adultery is insufficient virtue for his disciples. He immediately addresses our hearts, our desires: wishing to commit adultery, desiring it, lusting for it is just as great a sin as the act itself. How many real, personal relationships have been damaged by online relationships? Our age is suffering a tremendous plague of pornography—so great that some states are considering declaring it a public health hazard like tobacco. Porn turns people—the images of God—into objects, toys for our amusement, our selfish gratification like playing a video game or diving into a big bowl of ice cream. I don’t need to mention some of the specific social ills that follow from that sort of mindset.
Jesus uses a strong image as he speaks of our sexual desires—about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes. His Semitic culture liked such exaggerated images; recall the line about a camel squeezing thru a needle’s eye. The point is to control our bodies, to avoid the occasions of sin, to resist temptations, even to practice traditional Christian mortification; not to let anything get between us and God. Remember the resolution that St. Dominic Savio made when he was 7: “Death rather than sin.”
Still speaking of adultery, Jesus goes on to address divorce and remarriage—a hot topic, shall we say, in contemporary Church discussions. Could his teaching be any plainer? The Church takes its doctrine of the permanence of marriage from Jesus’ own words, expressed not only here but also in a debate with the Pharisees; see Matt 19 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke, as well as 1 Cor 7). “Unless the [1st] marriage is unlawful” (5:32), he says here, i.e., for some reason isn’t an authentic marriage (is invalid), divorce and remarriage is adulterous. A careful reading of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia will find the teaching of Jesus upheld, despite the interpretations that some have put on it.
Finally—for today’s gospel reading—Jesus takes up the question of truthfulness in our speech. Christians aren’t to be deceptive or devious but to speak the truth plainly. Yes means yes, and no means no. If I give you my word, I keep it. If I speak of someone or something, I speak as honestly about him or it as I possibly can. We needn’t go into the intricacies of moral theology here, e.g., about who is entitled to hear the truth and from whom we may withhold it.
So Jesus isn’t doing away with any of God’s commandments when, e.g., he summarizes the law and the prophets as loving God wholeheartedly and our neighbor as ourselves. He sets a very high standard for us to follow if we would be his disciples—so high that later he’ll compare following him to carrying a cross toward crucifixion. It is a challenge, absolutely, to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. The words that St. Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah, then, are encouraging, about the wonderful things that “God has prepared for those who love him”: far beyond anything we can possibly imagine (1 Cor 2:9).