Epiphany 6 16th February 2014 Year A
As we have followed through this section of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount we have noted how Jesus is cast by Matthew as being a new Moses bringing a new Law. Like that of old it is associated with a mountain, often seen in all sorts of cultures as being places close to God. Here however Jesus is seen as being more than Moses for while Moses receives the Law of old as pronounced by God, Jesus here pronounces himself the new Law. The Law that Jesus gives intensifies and deepens the old Law by searching into people’s hearts and motivations. Yet it also, despite Matthew having Jesus say, ‘not an iota of the Law will be done away with’ (5:17-19) in actuality has Jesus countermanding the Law at several places.
Our reading today begins with Jesus referring to the sixth commandment in the Decalogue or ten commandments regarding killing. Jesus desires to drive this command deeper to its motivational source. Anger breeds that which leads to killing. If you call your neighbour an ‘imbecile’ or ‘blockhead’, which is what literally the word used here means, you begin that process of depersonalization whereby you may end up killing them. Rabbi Eliezar just after the time of Jesus (c.90) gives us an interesting parallel, ‘those who hate their neighbour belong to the shedders of blood.’ To act in such manner charges Jesus has very severe consequences, the casting into the fires of ‘hell’ (literally Gehenna). Gehenna, is a valley south of Jerusalem where originally the god Moloch had been worshipped and which was at this time the place where the city’s refuse was burnt. According to popular belief the final judgment would take place. This Gehenna image is one well-liked by Matthew and he uses it another six times.
The leaving of the gift at the altar tells us that the Christians, most of them Jews, were still involved in temple worship with this requirement. We are told however, that not even religious duties, no matter how sacred or important, are to take preference over those duties commanded by God to our neighbour. These verses go even beyond that called for earlier. Here there is not just a prohibition of the negative anger, but a positive call to reconciliation with those whom one has offended, and not only just with those who have offended oneself. It can be easy to forgive a wrong-doer to you and be reconciled with them. Coming from this weaker position oneself being the guilty one the disciple’s call is all the harder.
Next Jesus speaks to the seventh commandment, adultery. As anger is the motive behind killing, so lust is the motive behind adultery. Again Jesus is concerned to deepen the Law to the question of motivation and purity of desire. This idea of using the eye in looking then links us to that section following where two metaphors are used, the first being the eye, to indicate the seriousness of avoiding wrong. The metaphor makes clear the seriousness with which Jesus here deals with wrongdoing and even wrong desire. One is called to a truly radical holy living.
Then follows another section, contrasting the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees with that to which Jesus calls us. Divorce was permitted under the Law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) giving permission for a man to write his wife a bill of divorce if his wife, ‘finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her.’ Indeed the Law demanded a man divorce his wife if she was not found to be a virgin at the point of consummation (Deuteronomy 22:13-14). Jesus forbids divorce. No exception to that ruling by him is allowed for in parallels to this reading in Mark 10:11 and Luke16:18 while Matthew’s Jesus allows for the exception of ‘unfaithfulness’ (here and 19:9). Matthew understands the church having been given the power to ‘bind or loose’, to adapt and make exceptions to the commands of Jesus (16:19, 18:18), and this would seem to be a case of such use of this authority by the early church. As for the reason it is hard to know. It may be associated, in this the most Jewish influenced of the early churches, with the ‘unfaithfulness’ of prohibited marriage unions under the Jewish Law (Leviticus 18:6-18). With Gentiles coming into this church not bound by Jewish marriage codes it may have acted as a way in which they could break these marriages not sanctioned by the Torah. As such I would see this as a falling from the original intention of Jesus. Paul likewise allows exceptions to the rigour of this command (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Given that women were the ones harshly and inequitably treated by the divorce codes of the Law Jesus may well have them in mind by this prohibition. The original allowance of divorce Jesus claims later in this gospel was ‘due to their hardness of heart’ (19:7-8). The nature however of the children of the kingdom is precisely a changed and pure heart. Thus in the original intention of Jesus the exception is removed. Here of course Jesus is at his most radical not only deepening the Law but actually abrogating it!
The fourth contrast between the old Law and that which is new given here by Jesus is to do with oaths. The Law forbade untruthful oaths in the third of the Ten Commandments. Given that oaths were given in the name of God, the making of false oaths was taking God’s name in vain. Penalties were thus severe. In the time of Jesus so as to avoid the swearing of an oath so serious in God’s name people swore by other things, ‘by heaven’, ‘by earth’, ‘by Jerusalem’ or ‘by one’s head’. All of these subterfuges are rejected by Jesus. These things after-all are all given by God and are dependent on God. Thus Jesus forbids oaths ipso-facto. Here again he is radically rejecting the letter of the Scriptures which in places called for oaths to be made. The community of his followers should hold the truth in such high regard that there is no need for them. A strong ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was sufficient. Jesus preceded his important statements with such, words that are often translated ‘amen, amen.’
Jesus presents for us a radical challenge, a challenge in which we have all surely failed. He calls us to a holy living, a living transformative of our living and through our living our world. We may like to domesticate Jesus making him one who affirms our way, but the Jesus here presented is anything but that. He calls us to aspire to perhaps unreachable heights. Perhaps he does so in order to strip away any false smug self-righteousness we may hold as we compare ourselves to others who we like to cast as ‘sinners.’ To call us to the heart of a new Law Jesus is prepared to intensify and deepen that of old, but on occasions even to break that which was holiest to his faith tradition and community. How often do we find circumlocutions around our deep ethical responsibilities by our claiming to be good in that we keep to the external aspects in being ‘good?’ Jesus calls us to something far deeper, a radical inward purity which leads to a true living for the good. In this is true life. As the Deuteronomist had written, ‘I have set before you life and good, death and evil…choose therefore life.’ Let us so choose life that we and others may live. It is in that calling we find our lives transformed and through that transformation our world transformed.