Sunday 16 February 2020
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Matt 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will 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.
Matt 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matt 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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 for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 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 for your whole body to go into hell.
Matt 5:31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matt 5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
This is a very long reading, which includes the very important introduction in vv. 17-20. The lectionary divides the subsequent antitheses into two groups (four today and the remaining two from vv.38-48 the following Sunday). Much scholarly ink has been spilt on the first four verses because they seem to put the Law, the Torah, firmly back at the centre of Christian existence. A great deal depends on the interpretation of “fulfil”. It looks as if the Matthean community has made significant adjustments to its observance of the Law and is open to the accusation of having abandoned key elements. Matthew stresses continuity with the first covenant while at the same time holding that fulfilling the Law might include transcending it. The Biblical prophecies have been fulfilled. Because of the Christ event, the ethical requirements have been transcended and deepened. A key interpretative verse is found later in the Gospel: Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:34–35) In the ethical commandments, Jesus first reaffirms and then radicalises
Kind of writing
Vv. 17-20 constitute a kind of statement of principle for interpreting the Law, the Torah. The antitheses which follow all imply an a fortiori (“all the more so”) argument. Sometimes an extended amplification accompanies the teaching. Two things are noticeable. Firstly, there is a claim to authority higher than the Torah in the words “but I say to you”. This helps us, at least in part, to understanding the statement of principle: the Christian reception of Jewish moral practice is towards the interior attitude rather than the external observance. Of course, Judaism also knows this but Matthew no doubt is writing in a context of antagonism between Rabbinic Judaism and what we may called Messianic or Christian Judaism. Hence, the very sharp tone and contrasts. The following antitheses are in two triads (ignored in the lectionary): the first three are amplified with more sayings; the second three are presented on their own.
Old Testament background
You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)
Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless. (Malachi 2:16)
New Testament foreground
In Matthew’s Gospel, there is a complex three-fold attitude to the Torah, summarised in these verses.
Abuse of the Law: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23)
Heart of the Law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12) [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40)
The “time” of the Law: For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:13–15) NB also the start of today’s first reading (see comment).
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Romans 7:12)
Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:29)
Verses 17-20 The fulfilment of the prophecies in Jesus is noted regularly in this Gospel (Matt 1:22; 2:15, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9), usually in the past tense. All has been accomplished and this relativizes the apparently absolute “heaven and earth”.
Verses 21-26 See Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17. Disparate sayings are appended to insist on the interior attitude as the heart of the matter. The link between worship and ethics is firmly made. As often in Matthew, ever the teacher, the final argument is in the form of a threat.
Verses 27-30 See Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18. The NRSV doesn’t quite capture the force of the original Greek, expressed better in the NET version: But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her (Matthew 5:28). Involuntary attraction is precisely involuntary; the problem is the movement to desire her. In the subsequent teaching, expressed with typical Jewish hyperbole, self-mutilation is not what is at stake but rather going beyond the symptoms to the root cause. The root cause is always the human heart, which it would be tricky to “tear out and throw away”!!!
Verses 31-32 See Dt 24:1-4 (NB also Mal 2:14-15). See also Mt 19:3-9, where the same exception arises. It seems clear that the historical Jesus simply forbade divorce. The early church, however, allowed it in some circumstances. The meaning of “unchastity” is disputed. A standard dictionary offers these interpretations: 1. unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication, 2. participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication 3. immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication. In any case, Matthew’s church “adjusted” the blanket prohibition to deal with reality. Forbidden degrees of consanguinity may well be the best contextualised hypothesis, because Matthew does say “unchastity” here.
Verses 33-34 See Ex 20:7; Lev 19:12; Num 30:3; Dt 23:31. Cf. Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12)
Pointers for prayer
1. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proposes standards that go beyond external ways of behaviour but challenge how we feel in our hearts. When have you found that living out of inner conviction is more life-giving than keeping up appearances?
2. Jesus applies his teaching to feelings of anger and sexual desire. He suggests that if we do not keep an eye on our feelings and thoughts we will not be able to control our actions. Perhaps you have experienced the truth of this. What has helped you to integrate your feelings so that you were able to live in right relationship with yourself and others?
3. For Jesus, persons with genuine authenticity do not need to swear an oath to be convincing. Their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ suffices. Recall people who had this kind of credibility for you. When have you found that your simple, direct and honest communication had a positive persuasive force?
All-seeing God, you alone judge rightly our inmost thoughts. Teach us to observe your law from the heart even as we keep it outwardly.
Purify our desires, calm every anger, and reconcile us to one another. Then will our worship at your altar render you perfect praise.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
It is clear already in the Old Testament that it is not our misdeeds which accuse us before God, but our hearts, fractured and divided as they are. Consistent with Israelite teaching, Jesus insists that we go deeper than our external deeds. The important question is what is going on in our hearts, the source of inner thoughts and motivations? The teaching is presented using various examples, presented sometimes with great simplicity, other times with irony and wit.
O God, you read our hearts and you know us even better than we know ourselves. Let us trust your knowledge of us and your call to true conversion of heart, for you desire only our good that we may be both whole and holy.