Sunday, February 16 2020
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Liturgical Color: Green
First reading: Sirach 15:15–20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119:1–2, 4–5, 17–18, 33–34
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6–10
Gospel: Matthew 5:17–37
This week, I’ve included a few thoughts from the meditations by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, a Cistercian (Trappist) monk, on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, from his three-volume work, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word (Ignatius Press). The author has A LOT to say about each individual verse of this week’s Gospel reading. In fact, his comments on those 10 verses go on for five full chapters! Obviously, we’re not going to condense that much information into a couple of succinct paragraphs. Instead, I have chosen to speak a little, using Leiva-Merikakis’ most salient points, on the first four verses of this week’s Gospel reading. I’ll put it mostly in my own words, but sometimes quote the author directly. This choice is motivated by the observation that many commentators, especially those of Protestant heritage, supposing that the Law has been supplanted by a new dispensation, don’t seem to know what to do with it.
Here, then, is the abbreviated text from this week’s gospel that I am considering here:
17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In this monumental section of Matthew which we call the Sermon on the Mount, following standard rabbinic practice in presenting his thesis first positively, then negatively, so that there may be no doubt about his meaning, Jesus tells the crowds emphatically not only what to believe, but also what NOT to believe. An example of the latter is his absolute rejection of the idea that he is going to do away with the Jewish Law, as embodied in the Torah (the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets (the rest of the Old Testament). He is not only NOT going to do that, but on the contrary, he is going to bring that Law to FULFILLMENT. Put in other terms, Jesus will have nothing to do with the notion of abolishing what his Father has promulgated in order to build a whole new creation and rules for its governance, as if the initial creation were not good enough. This would make God out to be an arbitrary and unstable ruler of the universe he has created.
“I have come, not to… but to…” These are the words of someone who knows exactly what he is about, one in whom his ordinary consciousness of himself as Jesus of Nazareth, the child in the household of Mary and Joseph, coincides with his extraordinary understanding of himself as Son of God. For when he says, “I have come”, are we to suppose he means his coming from Galilee to Judaea or his return from Judaea back to Galilee, where he has been preaching?
On the contrary, Jesus comes into the world but once. (In his Second Coming, he does not enter the world, which is being destroyed by his unveiled Presence, but stands above it as judge.) He comes from the Father as the eternal Word, or Idea. And what does he bring?
Jesus affirms the fundamental necessity and goodness of the Law. To the course of action that comes most naturally to man in all his unredeemed violence — to destroy and abolish the existing state of things so as to re-create the world in the image of his own fallen instincts — Jesus juxtaposes an alternative.
That alternative is not, as many presume, repressive and tyrannical. Instead, it is the mind of God, the divine plan for mankind. It is the fulfillment of his creation, especially of humanity. This is outlined by this week’s First Reading, which begins with the affirmation that “if you will, you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live.” It goes on to insist that “before a man are life and death, good and evil, and whichever he chooses will be given to him,” thus reminding us that we have free will and are at liberty to choose how we will respond. The Psalm shows the thoughts that the man of God will offer (a willing heart) and what he will receive in turn (the blessedness of heaven).
The Jews gloried in the fact that God had not given the Law to any other people, so that for them the Law was the proof of God’s special, personal love for Israel. The Law is the revelation of God’s interior thoughts, so much so that to the question, “What is God doing in heaven?” the rabbis routinely responded, “Reading Torah!” No one had been admitted to the intimacy of God’s own thoughts except the Jews. “Fulfilling the Law”, therefore, for Jesus, does not so much mean keeping every detailed precept it contains as it means bringing to full fruition the seeds and promises and truths it contains at a more inchoate stage.
Here Judaism offers us a unique view of the Law, something only this divinely established religion can do. The Torah is not an arbitrarily detailed system of human behavior, but a means of uniting the human mind and will to those of God, of divinizing humanity in an unimaginably vast spiritual freedom. This follows, too, from Paul’s teaching in our Second Reading: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
“Not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law.” This emphasizes what Jesus tells us at the outset: The Law will remain forever. Not the least detail will be removed, although God will correct the misinterpretations of human “wisdom” with the divine truth he gave us from the beginning.
Without God’s Word, the right relationship of man to the heavens and the earth would be incomprehensible, because they might themselves be mistaken for divinities, whereas the Word of God, manifested in the utterances and the very shape of Torah, is intelligible, personal, authoritative self-communication of God to man.
Nevertheless, it is not God’s creation that is the master, but his Son, the divine Word, who is Lord of all. He who made the Law is the only One who can fulfill it to perfection. Let us return to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which we celebrated only a short time ago. God mandated that every first-born male be brought to the Temple and dedicated to the Lord. Our Lord’s Presentation is precisely the fulfillment of the Torah in this respect. Jesus does not merely “obey” the Law; he fulfills it by his presence.
“Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
The Law is so fundamental that the Person who spurns, not the greatest, but the least aspect of it will himself be called “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Law is a totality, and its inviolable integrity is not open to rearrangement and a reductive reinterpretation. He who spurns the least commandment is saying that God has no business “meddling” in the corners of human life or that obedience in small things is of no account or, even worse, that we may divide our life and give the greater part of it to God but keep a portion for ourselves, where God will be treated as outsider and intruder.
This is the common human method of telling God, “You have no right to tell me what to do!” Where did this attitude of rebellion come from, if not from Satan himself? When heaven and earth pass away — as eventually they will — what will be left? The Law. And if the Law should pass away, what would be left? The Kingdom of Heaven.
What will the person be who rebels against God in this manner? Hardly a worm compared to that Kingdom and its Creator.
“I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
[Jesus] does not make us choose between the (so-called “external and institutional”) Law and the (“internal and authentic”) Spirit; rather, he would have us find the Spirit deep within the Law. If he is asking his followers to surpass the “justice” of the Pharisees and Doctors of the Law, this “surpassing” is an overabundance that transcends the Law interiorly, that deepens the sense of the Law and traces it back to its very source in the will and Heart of God.
In the end, we must choose either to live in harmony with God and his creation, or as enemies of everything we imagine God to represent and to be.