Feb. 12: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sir 15:15-20; Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5:17-37
The Sermon on the Mount forms the very heart of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel from which our Sunday readings will be drawn throughout this liturgical year. We began hearing this segment of the Gospel with the Beatitudes on Jan. 29 and selections from the sermon will continue to the end of February.
This Sunday’s reading brings us even deeper into the teaching of Jesus. The quotation that begins our passage is key: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” By the “law or the prophets” Jesus means the entirety of the Old Testament that was God’s word to his beloved Israel.
The Gospel of Matthew has the strongest Jewish tones of all the Gospels. The evangelist, who was undoubtedly a Jewish Christian himself, wanted to assure his fellow Jewish Christians that Jesus’ mission was not meant to reject or abandon Israel but to bring to completion and full flowering all of God’s promises to his people. Central to Jewish tradition were the ethical commands of God that guided the people to a life of integrity and justice as embodied, for example, in the Ten Commandments. One strong emphasis of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel is to affirm continuity with the sacred traditions of Judaism.
But Matthew’s Gospel also introduces something new and fresh, while in continuity with what had gone before. Jesus himself, of course, was something “new.” He was a devout Jew but he was also God’s messiah and embodied the very presence of God in the midst of his people. So Jesus’ teaching would build on the wisdom of Jewish tradition but would also reach for something new. This is evident in the powerful set of teachings found in today’s Gospel passage.
Jesus tells his disciples that their “righteousness” — that is, their way of living in accord with God’s will — should surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, the religious authorities who often play a negative role in Matthew’s Gospel. There follows a series of contrasts in which Jesus compares his teaching with the received wisdom of the tradition: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”
In each instance the teaching of Jesus calls for a deeper interior spirit and more intense virtue. Thus, one should not only refrain from killing someone but Jesus asks we not harbor anger toward another in our heart and should seek reconciliation with the other. Not only should we not commit adultery but we should view people with respect and with no lust in our heart. Fidelity in marriage should be enduring and the bond of love not severed. Likewise, there is no need for elaborate oaths to certify we are telling the truth; our “yes” should be a “yes” and our “no” a “no.”
Each of the contrasts that Jesus draws in this part of the sermon — and which will continue in next Sunday’s reading — focuses on human relationships and offers a breathtaking vision of human life in all of its integrity and beauty. He sees a life in which there will be no violence, no sexual exploitation; a world in which there is lasting fidelity in relationships and complete honesty in our speech.
The disciples and the crowds listening to Jesus were not superheroes but ordinary people, frail and imperfect for sure. But Jesus’ words offer a vision of what we are meant to be at our best — a disclosure of the human life and relationships as God intended them to be. Jesus’ teaching and the call for heroic virtue is not meant to discourage us but to lift up our hearts by reminding us of our inherent God-given beauty and our capacity for goodness.
Often we hear examples of human failure and degradation. Sin is real. But the Gospel offers us another portrayal of human life and human relationships that is beautiful. Even in our weakness and failures, it is to such a life Jesus calls us.