Proper 2: Deuteronomy 30.15-end or Ecclesiasticus 15.15-end; Psalm 119 1-8; 1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37
Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THERE are occasions when one commentator sheds so much light on a passage that anyone seeking a way to approach it should be directed straight to this source. Brendan Byrne’s discussion of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is an outstanding example of such scholarship, and what follows relies heavily on his work (Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today, Liturgical Press, 2004).
Byrne looks at the whole of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.1-7.28) in the light of the Gospel-writer’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses. When Jesus ascends the mountain and sits down to teach the disciples, as a large crowd presses near to hear what he says, he is dramatically entering this role.
Mountains are traditionally places of revelation (for example, Genesis 22, Exodus 19, 1 Kings 19.9-18), and sitting is the posture adopted by teachers. What he teaches the disciples also confirms his identification with Moses; for he is giving them “the Torah for the renewed people of God”.
The message has to be patiently driven home. Last Sunday’s readings took us to the point at which Jesus makes clear to the disciples that his business is not to do away with the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5.13-20).
If they are serious about following him, they must be superlative fulfillers of the Law — not just practising routine conformity, but committing themselves to living the law in a way that engages with the spiritual and ethical emphasis apparent in Deuteronomy (which is likely to have had its final revision in the reign of the reforming King Josiah in the late seventh century BC).
This demanding invitation reserves its full impact for the specific instances in which the implications of the law must be honestly confronted in practice. The examples given in Matthew 5.21-37, Byrne points out, are concerned with relationships between human beings. Their purpose is to show that genuine righteousness is a matter of the “heart”, and not just visible obedience to legal prescriptions. Even so, modern readers are surely entitled to ask why some of these illustrations are so hard, and what value attaches to their more bizarre recommendations.
The answer to the first part of these questions comes later in the Gospel itself. Jesus tells the disciples: “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” (Matthew 5.48, REB). God, Byrne says, is “the measure of perfection”: no lesser aim will do.
At the same time, he acknowledges that the suggestion of cutting off sinful hands and plucking out sinful eyes (Matthew 5.29-30) is
a device “designed to shock hearers into a whole new way of looking at human behaviour by commending something totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable”.
So, what is this new way of looking? Fundamentally, it involves taking a mature responsibility for one’s actions — and, more than this, for the motives that lead to actions. It is entirely right that murderers should be brought to justice, but it takes a particular reflective capacity to recognise and address the anger that could spill over into violence, before violence is committed (Matthew 5.21-22).
Ritual offerings to God are not to be despised, but the spirit in which they are given must stand up to examination. Delaying the presentation of the gift, to be reconciled with someone who has a grievance against you, signals a deeper understanding of obligation to God as it is lived out in wholesome human relationships (Matthew 5.23-26). Adultery deserves condemnation, but so does any appraisal of another person as potentially exploitable (Matthew 5.27-28).
The hardest of the statements in this passage concern divorce, and
it is here that Byrne’s reading is bravest:
No doubt many people in second marriages hear this ruling of Jesus . . . as an instance of burdens imposed rather than lifted. . . Whatever development the ecclesiastical discipline, especially the very strict discipline of the Catholic tradition, may undergo in the future, it will be important to keep in mind that, while illustrating the “surpassing righteousness” required of disciples (Matthew 5.20), Jesus’s statements in this area: (1) are not legal rulings that are absolutely clear; (2) envisage a life expectancy and social stability vastly different from that obtaining today; (3) are primarily concerned to reclaim marriage from something where all the power and decision-making rest one-sidedly with one partner (the man) to something corresponding to the original design of the Creator, a lifelong equal companionship of permanence and fidelity (Genesis 2.18-25; Matthew 19.3-6).
Jesus calls his disciples, and others who will discover a new way of life through them, to be citizens of a perfect world. St Paul had similar ambitions for the Corinthians, but he was realistic about the boundaries and processes of time.
Evangelists would remind them of God’s promises and desires for them, but, in the end, evangelists are only servants, part of the great work in progress — “God’s field, God’s building” — which is the redemption of humanity (1 Corinthians 5-9).