February 19, 2017
This year our Gospel readings at Sunday Mass come mainly from Saint Matthew. It was not the first Gospel to be written - that was Mark, which Matthew used extensively as the foundation of his expanded version - but Matthew came to be given the first place in Bibles because it contains so much of the teaching of Jesus. We should be particularly aware of this emphasis on teaching this year when the later date of Lent and Easter gives us eight Sundays of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday, with five Sunday Gospels in a row (4 through 8) coming from the Sermon on the Mount. That “sermon” occupies chapters 5-7 of the Gospel, beginning “Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them” (5, 2) and ending “his teaching made a deep impression on the people, because he taught them with authority” (7, 28-29). There are five blocks of teaching in Matthew altogether, and one suggestion is that there is a parallel between these five discourses and the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or Jewish law. Jesus on the Mount is the new Moses, giving new laws for God’s chosen people. And these laws have been lasting: much of what we think of as the Christian character is based on the teaching found in Matthew’s Gospel.
We think that Matthew wrote for people who were mainly Jewish converts to Christianity so he deliberately portrays Jesus as a Jewish rabbi, teaching a new law but reassuring his listeners that it reflects the true spirit of Israel. Christians at the time were being persecuted both by the Roman authorities and by the Jews, so it must have been tempting for some of them to return to their Jewish roots. In such a setting Mathew wanted to show that Jesus and the Church were the true fulfillment of all the Jews had been waiting for. As we would say, the New Testament is the completion of the Old. That’s why the Jesus of Matthew speaks with the pattern: “You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors...but I say to you” (5, 21-48). Law plays a central role in Matthew’s Gospel, just as it did for the Jews, but Jesus actually sets a higher standard of ethical behavior which corrects or complements the Old Law given to the Jews by God.
For example, we saw in last week’s Gospel that the Jewish law had developed a system of divorce, but then we heard Jesus explain that divorce was never in God’s original plan; rather “what God has joined, man must not separate” (19, 6). Today’s Gospel reading covers two more areas where Jesus asks his followers to go beyond the standards of the Jewish law: instead of doing the minimum, we should be generous; instead of simply avoiding enemies, we should love and pray for them. Such standards may seem impossible to us but Matthew’s point is that Jesus is more than a human rabbi; only someone with divine authority could speak in this way. God wants us to be perfect. Let’s just say that we all have “room for improvement”, but we have confidence that God can carry out his work of grace in us.