Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will 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 those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until 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 everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:17-28 – NRSV).
This is the shorter version. The longer version may be proclaimed. It includes the following:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, 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. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (5:29-37 – NRSV)
Concerning anger, see also Luke 12:57-59. Concerning divorce, see also Matthew 19.9, Mark 10.11–12 and Luke 16.18. The rest of the text is unique to Matthew.
The contrast of Jesus’ way with that of the religious authorities of his day, is a theme in Matthew’s Gospel. This contrast between the Way of Jesus and the way of the religious authorities, is also strongly present in the writings of St Paul – see for example Romans 10:3. This text of St Paul to the Romans – written about twenty years before Matthew’s Gospel, though obviously sharing in the same oral tradition – is one to which we must return.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: “Jesus directs his hearers as to how they should think about the law and his relationship to it. There is a great deal in this Gospel about the law, and this section is very important for Jesus’ understanding of the law and its implications. He makes clear that ‘He is in no way contradicting the Mosaic law, though He is opposed to the legalistic type of religion that the scribes had built upon it’” (L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 107).
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill: Jesus is later to remind his listeners that the law may be summed up in the two commandments of love – see 22:37–40. St Paul similarly reminds his listeners that “love is the fulfilment of the law” – see Romans 13:10. “Fulfilling” is more than “conforming” or “keeping”. This is to become very obvious in the light of Jesus death and resurrection and through his sending of the Holy Spirit.
unless your righteousness etc: The Pharisees were renowned for their focus on fidelity to the Torah. Jesus is not asking for that kind of righteousness but something much deeper. Jesus’ words should not be taken as a demand that his disciples should try harder than the pharisees and keep the precepts of the law more meticulously. These words must be taken in the context of the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:1-7:29 – and especially The Beatitudes – Matthew 5:1-12. The “kingdom of heaven” is not about keeping laws and observing precepts – though, as a matter of fact, it will include that. It is about love. One commentator writes: “Jesus calls for his followers to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. He is surely using the term righteousness in a sense different from that which the scribes and Pharisees attached to it. They looked for strict legal correctness, whereas Jesus looked for love. They stressed the keeping of the law, and from the standpoint of the lawkeeper it is not easy to see how anyone could exceed their righteousness. Along the lines of lawkeeping who could possibly exceed the righteousness of those who tithed mint, dill, and cummin (23:23)? But Jesus has already spoken of a different kind of righteousness (3:15), and it is central to the Christian gospel that Jesus would fulfil all that Scripture means in making a new way, a way in which he would bring those who believe in him to salvation. This does not mean cheap grace, for the words of this verse bring out the truth that those who have been touched by Jesus live on a new plane, a plane in which the keeping of God’s commandments is important. Their righteousness is a given righteousness. Nowhere do we get the idea that the servant of God achieves in his own strength the kind of living that gives him standing before God. But when he is given that standing, Jesus looks to him to live in accordance with that standing. Later in this sermon Jesus will emphasize the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The Pharisees put a tremendous emphasis on the letter of the law, but Jesus was looking for something very different from the Pharisaic standard. For them it was a matter of observing regulations (and softening them where possible), but for him it was keeping the commandments in depth; he taught a radical obedience” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 111).
Another commentator takes up the same theme, including the writings of St Paul – such as the reference to Romans 10:3 cited above. It is worth quoting in full: “It is hardly news that there was a very profound clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and that Paul’s conversion instigated a dialectic no less violent. But later Christian animosity has badly distorted the true nature of this confrontation. Pharisees are described as hypocrites or as uncaring legalists and inhuman externalises who imposed on others burdens they themselves would not bear. Most of which is inaccurate, unhistorical, and purely polemical. ….
“Apart from the damage such caricatures have done to Judaism and the relationship of Christianity to it, there is another very serious result within Christianity itself. When Christianity is no longer aware of what Jesus and Paul were fighting against in Pharisaic Judaism, it can hardly be conscious of a similar presence within itself. The debate did not concern good law as over against bad law or even internal and sincere law as over against external and hypocritical law. The challenge of Jesus and Paul was this: obedience does not lead to God, but God leads one to obedience. The question is not God or law, covenant or commandment, faith or works, but, granting both, in which direction does the arrow fly from one to the other? It must be emphasized that this is not a debate between Judaism and Christianity but a conflict within them both, and a conflict ever ancient and ever new. So, according to Jesus and Paul, it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible, not a good life that made the reward of God’s presence inevitable. …. as Ernst Käsemann has said so succinctly: ‘The righteousness of God does not presuppose our obedience; it creates it. The problem was not so much that one might not be able to obey the law’s excellence but that one might actually do so to perfection and thereby be unable to tell one’s own perfection from God. What exactly were Jesus and Paul fighting? In a final quotation from Käsemann: ‘the community of “good” people which turns God’s commandments into the instruments of self-sanctification’. The enemy was neither stupidity nor hypocrisy but sincerity all too sincere and perfection all too perfect” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 80-1).
Reflection – Are emotions sinful?
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 5:17-28 – Jesus invites his listeners to go deeper than simply observing laws: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. Jesus is in the mainstream of the prophetic tradition, where the contradictions between ritual observances and living relationships in the community are frequently condemned. For example: “I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21 & 23-24).
We need to be reminded often, both of our capacity to forget what really matters and God’s promise: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezekiel 36:25).
And so, Matthew tells us that, at the very beginning of his ministry, when “the prophet” Jesus emerged from the wilderness, he “began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (4:17). In other words: “Open your minds and hearts for God wants to love you into freedom!”
It is in this context we must read Jesus’ statements about anger and lust. Jesus cannot be saying that emotions – God’s gifts – are sins. He is clearly speaking of the violation of relationships. What is being condemned in each instance is not the emotion but the moral intent.
The moral intent is emphasized in reference to anger by the use of words such as “insult” and “fool”. The reference to lust – a perversion of the precious gift of sexual desire – implies the moral intent to use another person merely for self-gratification.
If we begin with the conviction that anger and sexual desire are in themselves “bad” – “sins” – we will not only put obstacles in the way of healthy human relationships, but inevitably set up an inner conflict. That conflict in turn can lead to serious anxiety and depression and various dysfunctional behaviours.
We would do well to begin with the revelation of how and why we came into being. God created us in love and for love. This includes our emotional life. We have reason therefore to recognize, in our emotions, a promise rather than a threat. Emotions potentially are a crucial part of our well-being as we engage the people, events and things of our days. They can add colour, originality and energy to our relationships. The God-given gift of our emotions calls for listening and honesty rather than suppression and repression.
Here’s a little practice you might find helpful. When you sense an emotion that tends towards damaging relationships, instead of fighting it, thank God for it. Take the initiative and deliberately begin a litany of thanksgiving: “Thank you Lord for my emotions. Thank you for my sexuality and my anger. Thank you for all the people in my life, the trees in the park, the sun in the sky . . . Thank you!” You have not only avoided a fight with yourself, you have turned a “temptation” into a prayer!