FEBRUARY 16, 2014: SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Those who listen carefully to today's gospel reading from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount will probably have problems with Jesus' opening statement: "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..." I presume most of us hearing these words can't name more than a dozen or two of the 613 Laws of Moses, much less worry about breaking any of them.
I often remind my students that our Scriptures weren't written for us. If they had, their authors would have written in English, not Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Whenever we read the Bible, we're technically reading someone else's literature. To understand their literature, we must first understand them.
Family counselors often warn parents of teenagers never to start a sentence with, "When I was your age .. . ." None of them ever were their children's age. They might have experienced the same number of years, but they never experienced those years in their children's environment.
The vast majority of Christians who read Matthew's gospel today have never experienced their faith in the environment the evangelist's readers experienced it. They were Jewish Christians, people who not only could click off the 613 Torah regulations, they kept them. Their males were circumcised, the family participated in synagogue services every Sabbath, and they never ordered a BLT from Sonic. They were the faith descendants of Jesus' original followers.
The late Fr. Raymond Brown constantly reminded us that the historical Jesus never intended to found a church as we know it. This first third of the first Christian century Galilean itinerant preacher was simply a reformer of Judaism. And, as a Pharisee, he was committed to keeping the Mosaic Laws. He would have agreed with the first line of today's Sirach reading: "If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live . . . ." But he had eventually reached a point in his relationship with Yahweh and those around him where he realized there was a deeper way of being saved, a more fulfilling way to live.
He clearly states his belief in our gospel pericope: "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." In this context, righteousness refers to our relationship with God and people; kingdom of God refers to surfacing God present and acting effectively in our everyday lives. As we hear during his encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10, Jesus presumes a good Jew can get into heaven by just keeping the 613 laws. But he wants his followers to experience the kind of righteousness he had experienced by adhering to those regulations in a deeper way than most of his fellow Jews did. He was convinced God's kingdom can only be surfaced by those who take those rules beyond their face value. That's why today we hear him constantly add on to "what was said" originally in the law.
Paul, in our I Corinthians passage, helps us reflect on Jesus' "wisdom" in demanding we relate to God and others in these new ways. No one can experience God's presence in the way Jesus did by just doing the bare minimum. As the Apostle discovered in his own life, there's depth to God that can only be surfaced by those who actually imitate Jesus' death and resurrection.