When a new political party comes to power everyone is keen to find out what they will change and what they will leave the same. A new generation often wants to abandon the rules of the preceding one, seeing them as no longer relevant to the new times. Jesus, however, does the reverse. He teaches that the Law of Moses and the prophecies are not to be abolished. Quite the opposite, He states that He has come to fulfil them:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Mt 5:17)
Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish religious and ethical teaching, which He does not revoke. Instead He deepens its meaning, and reminds people of how God wants us to live. It is an intensification of a rigorous system, which sets a very high standards to live by. Jesus states:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20)
The Religious Authorities of Jesus’ day were scrupulous in their observance of the Law, but even this is not good enough. As Our Lord will go on to explain, God is calling us to live to an even higher standard.
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt 5:22)
Intensifying the teaching on murder, Jesus points out that anger, and words spoken in anger can themselves have dire consequences. All aspects of our life matter, because we become what we do. As Christians, our actions and our speech help to form our moral character. They are how we put our faith into practice in our lives.
Jesus expects the Christian community to practise reconciliation:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)
We are called to be people in good accord with each other because Christ’s Death on the Cross has reconciled God and humanity. The Cross stands at the heart of Our Lord’s ethical teaching because it is the ultimate demonstration of love and goodness, poured out by God for our benefit. This is the ethical standard by which we are both measured and freed. Reconciliation is difficult and costly, but it allows Christians to live in a new way. This new way of living offers the world the opportunity to move beyond recrimination and retaliation, and flourish in a new relationship with God and each other.
Our Lord’s teaching on adultery takes things much further than the Law of Moses did. This is because Jesus is inaugurating a society based on love and faithfulness. What we say and do are important, they affect who we become. Each of the teachings in today’s Gospel begins, ‘You have heard it said …. But I say to you’, or something similar. Jesus takes existing moral teaching, and deepens it, going beyond the letter of the Law, to point out the Spirit which underlies the teaching. We are called to be people of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, who operate according to higher standards. And this includes the words we use everyday — they matter.
In our life, we have a choice to make, and we are free to make it. Today’s first reading, from the Jewish Wisdom tradition explains the options:
“Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.” (Eccelsiasticus 15: 17)
This verse echoes the choice given by Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19, and it is expanded upon a few verses later:
“He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin.” (Eccelsiasticus 15: 20)
Humanity has a propensity for sin; to choose to do what we know is the wrong thing to do. Sin damages us, and our relationship with both God and each other. But thanks to Jesus, who chose death for our sake, on our behalf, we can choose life in all its fullness. This we can achieve, both as individuals and as a community, by responding with love. In doing so we conform ourselves to Christ, and embrace His life and death. This is also exemplified in the writings of St Paul. Paul had a deep understanding of the Scriptures and came to see how they both pointed to, and also found their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. The Greeks in Corinth, to whom he was writing, prided themselves on their love of wisdom, their philosophy. Paul, however, has something different to offer:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (1Cor 2:7)
This hidden wisdom is simply to know Christ and Him crucified (1Cor 2:2) — words written by Paul a few lines earlier and part of our readings last Sunday. Because of who Jesus is, and what He does, humanity can choose life. The Christian life is not an easy option, it comes at a cost, but the alternative is far worse.
Individually, and as a Christian community, we will struggle to live up to the high standards that God expects of us. However, that is not an excuse not to try. With the love and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the knowledge that God’s love and forgiveness are never-ending, together we can attempt to be the people Jesus longs for us to be. Let us conform ourselves to Christ, and live like Him, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.