SUNDAY GOSPEL: JESUS AND HIS TEACHING, THE FULFILLMENT OF THE LAW.
Mt 5:17–37 [short version 5: 20–22a, 27–28, 33–34, 37]
(21)“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. (26)Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
(27)“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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 to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. (30)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 to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
(31)“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. (37) Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.
- vv. 17-19 In this passage Jesus stresses the perennial value of the Old Testament; it is the word of God; because it has a divine authority it deserves total respect.
- The Old Law enjoined precepts of a moral, legal and liturgical type.
- Its moral precepts still hold good in the New Testament, because they are for the most part specific, divine-positive, promulgations of the natural law.
- However, our Lord gives them greater weight and meaning. But the legal and liturgical precepts of the Old Law were laid down by God for a specific stage in salvation history, that is, up to the coming of Christ; Christians are not obliged to observe them (cf. Summa theologiae, I-Il, q. 108, a. 3 ad 3).
- The law promulgated through Moses and explained by the prophets was God’s gift to his people, a kind of anticipation of the definitive Law which the Christ or Messiah would lay down. Thus, as the Council of Trent defined, Jesus not only “was given to men as a redeemer in whom they are to trust, but also as a lawgiver whom they are to obey” (De iustificatione, can. 21).
- v. 20 “Righteousness”: This verse clarifies the meaning of the preceding verses.
- The scribes and Pharisees had distorted the spirit of the Law, putting the whole emphasis on its external, ritual observance.
- For them exact and hyper-detailed but external fulfilment of the precepts of the Law was a guarantee of a person’s salvation: “if I fulfil this I am righteous, I am holy and God is duty bound to save me.” For someone with this approach to sanctification it is really not God who saves: man saves himself through external works of the Law.
- That this approach is quite mistaken is obvious from what Christ says here; in effect what he is saying is: to enter the Kingdom of God the notion of righteousness or salvation developed by the scribes and Pharisees must be rejected.
- In other words, justification or sanctification is a grace from God; man’s role is one of cooperating with that grace by being faithful to it. Elsewhere Jesus gives the same teaching in an even clearer way (cf. Lk 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector). It was also the origin of one of St Paul’s great battles with the “Judaizers” (see Gal 3 and Rom 2-5).
- vv 21-26 give us a concrete example of the way that Jesus Christ brought the Law of Moses to its fulfilment, by explaining the deeper meaning of the commandments of that law.
- 22 By speaking in the first person (“but I say to you”) Jesus shows that his authority is above that of Moses and the prophets; that is to say, he has divine authority. No mere man could claim such authority.
- “Insults”: practically all translations of this passage transcribe the original Aramaic word, Raca (cf. RSV note below). It is not an easy word to translate. It means “foolish, stupid, crazy”. The Jews used it to indicate utter contempt; often, instead of verbal abuse they would show their feelings by spitting on the ground.
- “Fool” translates an even stronger term of abuse than raca — implying that a person has lost all moral and religious sense, to the point of apostasy.
- In this passage our Lord points to three faults which we commit against charity, moving from internal irritation to showing total contempt. St Augustine comments that three degrees of faults and punishments are to be noted.
- The first is the fault of feeling angry; to this corresponds the punishment of “judgment”. The second is that of passing an insulting remark, which merits the punishment of “the council”. The third arises when anger quite blinds us: this is punished by “the hell of fire” (cf. De Serm. Dom. in monte, II, 9).
- “The hell of fire”: literally, “Gehenna of fire”, meaning, in the Jewish language of the time, eternal punishment.
- This shows the gravity of external sins against charity — gossip, backbiting, calumny etc. However, we should remember that these sins stem from the heart; our Lord focusses our attention, first, on internal sins resentment, hatred etc. to make us realize that that is where the root lies and that it is important to nip anger in the bud.
- vv 23-24 Here our Lord deals with certain Jewish practices of his time, and in doing so gives us perennial moral teaching of the highest order.
- Christians, of course, do not follow these Jewish ritual practices; to keep our Lord’s commandment we have ways and means given us by Christ himself. Specifically, in the New and definitive Covenant founded by Christ, being reconciled involves going to the sacrament of Penance. In this sacrament the faithful “obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offence committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins” (Lumen gentium, 11).
- In the New Testament, the greatest of all offerings is the Eucharist. Although one has a duty to go to Holy Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, an essential condition before receiving Holy Communion is that one be in the state of grace.
- It is not our Lord’s intention here to give love of neighbour priority over love of God. There is an order in charity: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. This is the great and first commandment” (Mt. 22:37-38).
- Love of one’s neighbour, which is the second commandment in order of importance (cf. Mt 22:39), derives its meaning from the first. Brotherhood without parenthood is inconceivable. An offence against charity is, above all, an offence against God.
- vv 27-30 This refers to a sinful glance at any woman, be she married or not. Our Lord fills out the precepts of the Old Law, where only adultery and the coveting of one’s neighbour’s wife were considered sinful.
- “Lustfully”: feeling is one thing, consenting another. Consent presupposes that one realizes the evil of these actions (looking, imagining, having impure thoughts) and freely engages in them.
- Prohibition of vices always implies a positive aspect — the contrary virtue. Holy purity, like every other virtue, is something eminently positive; it derives from the first commandment and is also directed to it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).
- “Purity is a consequence of the love that prompts us to commit to Christ our soul and body, our faculties and senses. It is not something negative; it is a joyful affirmation” (J. Escrivá, Christ is passing by, 5). This virtue demands that we use all the resources available to us, to the point of heroism if necessary.
- “Right eye,” “right hand,” refers to whatever we value most. Our Lord lays it on the line and is not exaggerating. He obviously does not mean that we should physically mutilate ourselves, but that we should fight hard without making any concessions, being ready to sacrifice anything which clearly could put us in the way of offending God. Jesus’ graphic words particularly warn us about one of the most common occasions of sin, reminding us of how careful we need to be in guard of the sight. King David, by indulging his curiosity, went on to commit adultery and crime. He later wept over his sins and led a holy life in the presence of God (cf. 2 Sam 11 and 12).
- “The eyes! Through them many iniquities enter the soul. So many experiences like David’s! — If you guard your sight you will have assured the guard of your heart” (J. Escrivá, The Way, 183).
- Among the ascetical methods of protecting the virtue of holy purity are: frequent Confession and Communion; devotion to our Lady; a spirit of prayer and mortification; guard of the senses; flight from occasions of sin; and striving to avoid idleness by always being engaging in doing useful things. There are two further means which are particularly relevant today: “Decorum and modesty are younger brothers of purity” (St. Josemaria, The Way, 128).
- Decorum and modesty are a sign of good taste, of respect for others and of human and Christian dignity. To act in accord with this teaching of our Lord, the Christian has to row against the current in a paganized environment and bring his influence for good to bear on it.
- “There is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast.
- “And that crusade is a matter for you” ( St. Josemaria, The Way, 121).
- vv 31-32 The Law of Moses (Deut 24:1), which was laid down in ancient times, had tolerated divorce due to the hardness of heart of the early Hebrews. But it had not specified clearly the grounds on which divorce might be obtained.
- The rabbis worked out different sorts of interpretations, depending on which school they belonged to — solutions ranging from very lax to quite rigid. In all cases, only husband could repudiate wife, not vice-versa. A woman’s inferior position was eased somewhat by the device of a written document whereby the husband freed the repudiated woman to marry again if she wished. Against these rabbinical interpretations, Jesus re-establishes the original indissolubility of marriage as God instituted it (Gen 1:27; 2:24; cf. Mt 19:4-6; Eph 1:31; 1 Cor 7:10).
- [The RSVCE carries a note which reads: “unchastity”: The Greek word used here appears to refer to marriages which were not legally marriages, because they were either within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity (Lev 18:6-16) or contracted with a Gentile. The phrase except on the ground of unchastity does not occur in the parallel passage in Lk 16:18. See also Mt 19:9 (Mk 10:11-12), and especially 1 Cor 7:10-11, which shows that the prohibition is unconditional.] The phrase, “except on the ground of unchastity”, should not be taken as indicating an exception to the principle of the absolute indissolubility of marriage which Jesus has just re-established. It is almost certain that the phrase refers to unions accepted as marriage among some pagan peoples, but prohibited as incestuous in the Mosaic Law (cf. Lev 18) and in rabbinical tradition. The reference, then, is to unions radically invalid because of some impediment. When persons in this position were converted to the true faith, it was not that their union could be dissolved: it was declared that they had never in fact been joined in true marriage. Therefore, this phrase does not go against the indissolubility of marriage, but rather reaffirms it.
- On the basis of Jesus’ teaching and guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church has ruled that in the specially grave case of adultery it is permissible for a married couple to separate, but without the marriage bond being dissolved: therefore, neither party may contract a new marriage.
- The indissolubility of marriage was unhesitating taught by the Church from the very beginning; she demanded practical and legal recognition of this doctrine, expounded with full authority by Jesus (Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:1-12; Lk 16:18) and by the Apostles (1 Cor 6:16; 7:10-11, 39; Rom 7:2-3; Eph 5:310. Here, for example, are just a few texts from the Magisterium on this subject:
- “Three blessings are ascribed to matrimony The third is the indissolubility of matrimony — indissoluble because it signifies the indivisible union of Christ with the Church. Although a separation from bed may be permitted by reason of marital infidelity, nevertheless it is not permitted to contract another matrimony since the bond of a marriage lawfully contracted is perpetual” (Council of Florence, Pro, Armenis).
- “If anyone says that the marriage bond can be dissolved by reason of heresy, domestic incompatibility, or wilful desertion by one of the parties: let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, De Sacram. matr., can. 5).
- “If anyone says that the Church is in error when it has taught and does teach according to the doctrine of the Gospels and Apostles that the marriage bond cannot be dissolved because of adultery on the part of either the husband or the wife; and that neither party, not even the innocent one who gave no cause for the adultery, can contract another marriage while the other is still living; and that adultery is committed both by the husband who dismisses the adulterous wife and marries again and by the wife who dismisses her adulterous husband and marries again: let him be anathema” (ibid., can. 7).
- “Taking our starting point from that Encyclical, which is concerned almost entirely with vindicating the divine institution of matrimony, its dignity as a Sacrament, and its perpetual stability, let us first recall this immutable, inviolable and fundamental truth: matrimony was not instituted or re-established by men but by God; not men, but God, the Author of nature, and Christ our Lord, the restorer of nature, provided marriage with its laws, confirmed it and elevated it; and consequently those laws can in no way be subject to human wills or to any contrary pact made even by the contracting parties themselves. This is the teaching of Sacred Scripture; it is the constant and universal Tradition of the Church; it is the solemnly defined doctrine of the Council of Trent, which uses the words of Holy Scripture to proclaim and establish that the perpetual indissolubility of the marriage bond, its unity and its stability, derive from God himself” (Pius XI, Casti connubil).
- “It is true that before the coming of Christ the perfection and strictness of the original law were modified to the extent that Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, allowed even the members of God’s people to give a bill of divorce for certain reasons. But Christ, in virtue of his power as supreme Lawgiver, revoked this concession and restored the law to its original perfection by those words which must never be forgotten: ‘What God hath joined together let no man put asunder” (ibid.).
- “For the good of the parties, of the children, and of society this sacred bond no longer depends on human decision alone. For God himself is the author of marriage… The intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable unity between them”( Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 48).
- vv 33-37 The Law of Moses absolutely prohibited perjury or violation of oaths (Ex 20:7; Num 30:3; Deut 23:22).
- In Christ’s time, the making of sworn statements was so frequent and the casuistry surrounding them so intricate that the practice was being grossly abused. Some rabbinical documents of the time show that oaths were taken for quite unimportant reasons. Parallel to this abuse of oath-taking there arose no less ridiculous abuses to justify non-fulfilment of oaths. All this meant great disrespect for the name of God. However, we do know from Sacred Scripture that oath-taking is lawful and good in certain circumstances: “If you swear, ‘As the Lord lives’, in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory” (Jer 4:2).
- Jesus here lays down the criterion which his disciples must apply in this connexion. It is based on re-establishing, among married people, mutual trust, nobility and sincerity. The devil is “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). Therefore, Christ’s Church cannot permit human relationships to be based on deceit and insincerity. God is truth, and the children of the Kingdom must, therefore, base mutual relationships on truth. Jesus concludes by praising sincerity. Throughout his teaching he identifies hypocrisy as one of the main vices to be combatted (cf. for example, Mt 23:13-32), and sincerity as one of the finest of virtues (cf. Jn 1:47).