Fulfilling the law Sir 15:15-20; Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5:17-37 This Sunday’s readings place us in the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s Gospel. In these readings we encounter the beauty and the challenge of Jesus’ authentic teaching. The context of Matthew’s Gospel helps us understand the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. The evangelist Matthew was undoubtedly a Jewish Christian, someone who prized the heritage of Judaism and believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s dreams for the Messiah, the anointed one of God. For the evangelist and his community there was no fundamental contradiction between reverence for Jewish tradition and full faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus, in Matthew’s perspective, revealed the true heart and purpose of God’s people Israel. Yet, at the same time, Matthew’s community was aware that a new age had dawned with the death and resurrection of Jesus and that God’s love for Israel was now extended to include the Gentiles as well. Matthew’s Gospel concludes with the Risen Christ sending his missionary disciples “to all nations.” Through the teaching and example of Jesus, Matthew believed that one could confidently understand God’s will. As the psalm response for this Sunday proclaims: “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.” Matthew takes pains to show the continuity between his Jewish heritage and the teaching of Jesus, as well as the new accent Jesus gives to that heritage. As we hear in the important first line of the Gospel today: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The teachings of Jesus do not contradict the ancient wisdom of Israel’s law but bring it to a new depth and intensity. That is illustrated in the series of contrast statements in today’s Gospel reading where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …” Jesus affirms the command forbidding murder, and calls people to refrain from anger against a brother or sister and to reconcile one’s differences. He affirms the command forbidding adultery and calls people to treat women with respect and without exploitation. Instead of concentrating on the possible conditions for divorce, Jesus calls people to strive to remain faithful to their marriage commitment. He cautions against taking oaths to convince someone you are telling the truth, but rather urges that your word is your bond. In each instance, Jesus’ teaching asks that our hearts be filled with integrity, and that our actions reflect what is in our heart. The examples Jesus uses in this selection from the sermon — and the ones we will hear next Sunday — deal with vital human relationships and call for exceptional integrity: reconciliation rather than deadly anger; respect rather than exploitive lust; fidelity to our marriage commitment; honesty in speech. These are issues we struggle with today. The crowds and the disciples who gather to hear Jesus were not paragons of virtue but ordinary people. For them, as for us, the teaching of Jesus challenges disciples to live a deeper and more authentic life. The words of Jesus were not meant to discourage or crush the spirit of those of us who do not measure up, but to inspire us with a portrayal of what the human person is capable of with God’s saving grace. Each of us knows people who, in fact, reflect the spirit of Jesus’ teaching — people who check their anger and forgive; people who treat others with respect; couples who struggle to be faithful; people who tell the truth. In many ways, the breathtaking teaching of Jesus about the human capacity for virtue is a sign of confidence in us. Even as we struggle to grow in faith and virtue, we are God’s sons and daughters, able to reflect the beauty and goodness of the one who created us. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has captured the admiration even of those who are not Christians. For those of us who strive to follow Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount reminds us how compelling the Gospel is in its portrayal of the human person.