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Commentary on 6th Sunday of the Year (A), 12.02.2023
TEXT Mat 5:17-37
To fulfil the Law
17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; 26 truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
Previous weeks: Wk 2 — Jesus is the Messiah; John was his witness.
Wk 3 — Jesus says that the Kingdom is close; Repent! Follow!
Wk 4 — Jesus proclaims his Way — the eight Beatitudes
Wk 5 — Christians are meant to be Salt and Light to world
The Sermon on the Mount begins its doctrinal section with a description of the Law because there were many problems in the interpretation of the Law. This section extends from Matthew 5: 17 to 48 but is divided into two sections for the Sunday Gospel Readings: Sunday 06A (Mt. 5: 17–37) and ~Sunday 07A (Mt. 05: 38–48). For the majority of Jews the Law of Moses was the final word of God. Mt. 5: 1 has shown us Jesus as the New Moses speaking to the New Israel (5: 2. See Mt. 4: 1–11) as the new lawmaker. In this section we hear him in this role deepen the interpretation of the Law.
Jesus emphasises the permanent value of the Old Testament. This was necessary, as there were two schools of Jewish rabbinical thought, one allowing exceptions and lax interpretation, the other being strict. Jesus states that the Old Testament is the word of God whose authority is behind it and, therefore, cannot be loosened or laxly interpreted.
There were three types of legislation in the Law: moral, legal and liturgical. The moral code is fully in force without even the least change. Jesus will now transform it and make it more spiritual and stricter. It expresses the natural law. Jesus puts his authority behind these precepts and gives a deeper and spiritual interpretation. Through his teaching the full revelation intended by God will be presented. Jesus came as our Redeemer and also as our lawmaker.
The legal and liturgical precepts were temporal, until Christ the Messiah would come. They no longer are in force.
Matthew 5: 17–20 is regarded by many biblical scholars as the section of this Gospel most difficult to interpret.
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” — The implication is that some people thought that Jesus had come to abolish the Law and the prophets. He came to bring out their full meaning and complete revelation by supplementing them.
“the law and the prophets” — a phrase used in Mt. (7: 12; 11: 13; 22: 40) to denote Old Testament revelation.
At one stage, it was common to refer to morality as ‘tape–measure morality’, meaning that the minimum should be measured out for observance. It was an external and material observance. One example — people would argue how many inches a sleeve should be to pass as ‘decent’! A strongly held answer was three inches! There was certainly nothing spiritual included in the judgement of morality by that group of people. That has always been a temptation. We see it in the background to this passage.
The Pharisees made some changes in the Law and examples will be given under verse 19 below. The rabbis drew up 613 precepts for greater observance. Jesus implies that some thought that the Law, as it was then, was to be broken down and done away with. He says that he did not come for that. There were some imperfections in the Law which he would point out in the next verses when he would contrast what they had heard and understood and what he would point out to be the correct interpretation. The contrast will be expressed in the words used six times: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old … But I say to you” (Mt. 5: 21/22, 27/28, 31/32, 33/34, 38/39, 43/44). This distinction would be between the material and spiritual observance.
“For truly, I say to you, — Also translated as “Amen, I say to you”. This is a frequent assertive statement used by Jesus to strongly support a declaration or point he is about to make.
“till heaven and earth pass away,” — This means ‘until the end of time, of the world’ when the kingdom of heaven will come in its completeness.
“not an iota, not a dot,” — Of the twenty–two consonants in the Hebrew alphabet, “an iota” refers to the smallest letter, smaller even than “i”, and “the dot” was the point over it.
“will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” — Until its purpose has been achieved. The Law will be preserved intact. There will not be even a minimum change in the Law of Moses. Any change will be a perfection by way of clarification or improvement. When the end of time has come and the kingdom of heaven is fully established, there will be no need for the Law and the Prophets.
“Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;” — Even the smallest precept of the Law is important. There were some Pharisees who made changes in the Law and Jesus rebuked them: Mt. 15: 3–6 — “He answered them, ‘And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, Honour your father and your mother, and, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die. But you say, If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honour his father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.’”
Five other examples are Mt. 23:16– 17; 18–21; 22; 23–24; and 25–26.
“shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;” — They are not excluded from the Kingdom.
“but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” — Note the order of doing and teaching.
Those who faithfully observed and taught the Law were “called great in the kingdom of heaven”.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” — “Righteousness” means having a proper and intimate relationship with God, a seeker of the will of God. Because of this relationship, one needs to know and implement the will of God. One learns the will of God through the commandments, the duties of family, social and human relationships and through prayer.
Jesus does not say that the scribes and Pharisees will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He is warning his followers that they must be more particular.
Jesus declares that those who interfere in the observance of the Law by making changes are not doing the will of God and so are not worthy to enter “the kingdom of heaven”. It is their own “will” or desires that they are observing, not God’s. The scribes and Pharisees believed in an external and ritual observance of the law. By this type of external observance, man tries to save himself; God does not save him. In fact, God saves man who cooperates with God; it is God who saves.
Verses 21–26: Anger
These verses are a comment on the beatitude Blessed are the peacemakers. Disciples are not to be angry. In addition they must remove the anger that others have towards them; this is how they are peacemakers.
This is a very good example of how Jesus brought the Law of Moses to its fulfilment in his time by drawing out the deepest meaning of the commandment.
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old,” — This is the first of six occurrences of this remark. Four appear in this Gospel passage (Mt. 5: 17–37) and two in next Sunday’s passage (Mt. 5: 38–48, Ordinary Time, Sunday 07A).
The meaning is ‘you have heard that God said to the people who received the Law from Mt. Sinai.’ “It was said” is known as the ‘divine passive’, meaning “God said”.
“‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’” — The first few words are the commandment of the Law (Ex. 20: 13; Dt. 5: 18). The balance of the verse is what is written about the judicial process, the interpretation of the Law. It means that anyone who commits murder is legally bound to receive sentence from the local court.
“‘But I say to you’” — Jesus claims to have greater power and authority than Moses, the original lawmaker. He claims divine power by which he can supplement or authoritatively interpret the Law. Jesus does not contradict the Law or its interpretation but he gives a fuller meaning.
The expression “You have heard that it was said to the men of old … But I say to you” is called ‘an antithesis’ and there are six of them in this chapter. Many authors use this expression without explaining it. It means the requirements of the Old Law and the more demanding requirements of Jesus.
“‘that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment;’” — Anger is the first stage, an internal irritation. Jesus highlights this as the root cause of murder. However, while murder is rare, anger is frequent. Anger is liable to judgement of the local court because of leading potentially to murder and, therefore, is as guilty as murder.
The “brother” spoken of here is not a blood brother nor a fellow Christian but a fellow human being.
“‘whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council,’” — This is the second stage of anger, expressing an insult. If anger is expressed in words or deeds, the angry person should appear before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal council.
“‘and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.’” — This is the third stage of anger when one becomes completely blinded and loses control of one’s language. The words mentioned here are stronger in the original language than in present–day English. The highest form of anger is calling a person “fool” (to which we might add equivalents such as ‘idiot’, ‘stupid’, etc.) and this is punishable by hell fire. Jesus wishes to show that the cause of murder is as guilty as the murder itself.
“‘the “hell of fire” — Gehenna was the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem which was a symbol of hell fire (See Mt. 5:29. 30; 10: 28; 18: 9; 23: 15. 33) because of the furnaces and the burning of bodies in time of plague. In the Jewish language of the time, it implied eternal punishment.
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar,” — The altar in the Temple is the one in question.
“and there remember that your brother has something against you,” — You were the cause of your brother becoming angry because of what you did, either deliberately or even innocently.
“leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” — For a Jew, there was no more sacred act than one of worship. This verse says that reconciliation is more important than worship. Either person in a quarrel must be the one who is to make the first move to reconcile, not just the person who provoked it. This precept means, ‘be a peacemaker’.
To observe this precept, Christians were given a special gift from Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation by which they are forgiven for the offence and also are reconciled with the Church which is wounded by the sins of her members.
Love of God is the first commandment, love of neighbour is the second. We cannot drop the first — all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength — to place the second above it. Every offence against charity is an offence against God.
One should not neglect being a peacemaker.
“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.” — This verse stresses the urgency of reconciliation.
Verses 27–30: Adultery
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” — This is the second time that Jesus introduces his six remarks with the words “You have heard that it was said”. Then follows the wording of the Law.
“‘But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” — Lust is the root of adultery. Lustful desire of any woman is as guilty as actual adultery. In the Old Testament, adultery was confined to sexual relations between a married or engaged woman and a man not her husband (an engaged man was termed a ‘husband’). These and the coveting of one’s neighbour’s wife were judged to be sinful. The punishment was death of both offending parties.
“If your right eye causes you to sin,” — “Is a cause of scandal”, that is leads you to sin.
“pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” — This shows how radical one must be to overcome temptation. Needles to say, it is not necessary to be literally radical to this extent as other methods can be equally effective and less damaging to the body.
The “right eye” is mentioned as it is regarded as more important or more honourble than the left eye.
“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” — The same comment applies here. Be prepared to be radical. The right hand is considered more important than the left hand in the majority of people. The sinning hand is a reference to masturbation.
Verses 31–32: Divorce
CHECK ON NAVARRE
“It was also said,” — This is the third of six occasions when Jesus introduces a section with these words.
“‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” — This summarises Deut. 24: 1, which describes the divorce process. The document stated that the husband had divorced her and that she was free to marry. She was not accused of having committed adultery. See Matt. 19: 7–9.
“‘But I say to you’” — Once again Jesus claims divine power to interpret or change the Law.
“‘that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity,” — This is a difficult and much disputed phrase which I prefer defer to Matthew 19: 1–12.
“makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” — This subject is treated specifically in Matt. 19: 1–12 where a deeper study will be made.
Verses 33–37: Swearing
“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old” — For the fourth time, this expression is used: God spoke to the people who were at Mt. Sinai to receive the Law.
“‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” — This is a paraphrase of the Law which reads, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. An oath called on God’s name to assert that what was being said, with his witness to collaborate, was true. In fact, it was deliberately false. The oath was not an oath but perjury and grossly insulting to God’s name. At this particular time oath–taking had become very trivial, frequent and false.
“‘But I say to you,” — Once again, the fourth time, Jesus claims divine authority over the Law and its interpretation.
“Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.” — People often substituted some sacred place, such as heaven, earth or Jerusalem for God’s name. Jesus forbids these substitutions. His solution to the problem was to forbid swearing.
“And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” — To swear “by your own head” is to swear by oneself and this is forbidden. Hair got grey naturally or was coloured and so to swear by the colour of one’s hair was to swear by something over which one had no control or was false and washable.
“Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” — Jesus tells his disciples to love the truth for itself and state it clearly and simply; do not wish to swear facilely.