Homily February 12th, 2023

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A

Sir 15:15-20; Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5:17-37

            In today’s Gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells us that He came, not to abolish the Law or the prophets, but to fulfill. To understand what He means, we can break the Gospel into two parts: first, we have the introduction, where Christ speaks of Himself as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, and, second, the examples that Christ gives.

            Regarding the first, the Jews in Christ’s time tended to understand the Law in at least two very different senses: on one hand, the Law meant part or all of the Old Testament, that is, literally what the Scriptures contained. This is literally what God wanted in writing and recalled. However, and more commonly, the Jews used the term “law” to refer to the oral laws, or the regulations that the scribes had established as the way that the Old Testament should be lived out in every single moment and aspect of life.[1] This collection of oral traditions was finally written down after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD in what’s called the Mishnah, and, to give you an idea, an English edition runs about 800 pages.[2] Later Jewish scribes would write additional commentaries on the Mishnah, called the Talmuds, specifying even more things to do or avoid. The Talmud of Jerusalem is 12 volumes; that of Babylon, over sixty. They could consider absolutely every little detail of life: for instance, no work can be done on the Sabbath. But, what does work consist of? Does it consist of walking 100 steps? Or 90? Or 80?[3]

            It is precisely because this was an oral law that Christ uses the phrases that we hear in today’s Gospel: You have heard that it was said to your ancestors. . . .  You have heard that it was said. . . .  It was also said. . . . 

            This is important, because we do see Christ breaking or abolishing the law in the second sense: He heals on the Sabbath, He spoke with a Samaritan woman, and any number of things that violated the oral laws. However, these interpretations had gotten away from what God intended with the law in the first place, namely, not that it impose a huge burden on people, but rather that it lead people to love Him.

            However, in the first sense, Christ doesn’t abolish the law or the prophets; He fulfills them. A medieval scholar beautifully writes that when He speaks of the “smallest letter,” Christ uses the Greek word iota, because in the Greek numeral system it means ten, and thus Christ is making an allusion to the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, of which the Gospel is the pinnacle and perfection.[4] Christ fulfills the law and the prophets, not only in the sense that He is its completion, for instance, He Himself takes the place of the Passover Lamb, He Himself is the suffering servant that Isaiah foretold, but also in the sense that He re-directs our focus to what matters, namely, loving God and serving Him in accord with that love.

            As Saint Paul tells the Galatians, “Before faith came, we were held in custody under law, confined for the faith that was to be revealed. Consequently, the law was our disciplinarian for Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian” (Gal 3:23-25). The law kept us from going astray, but we can’t be justified simply by following the rules; rather, it is through faith that we become God’s children, and, like good children, we follow rules because this is what is good for us and shows our love for our Heavenly Father. As Christ tells His disciples at the Last Supper, “If you love Me, keep My Commandments.” Again, rules aren’t bad things, but they certainly aren’t the whole substance of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

            Again, the law is a teacher; it tells us what we should do and what we should avoid, but, the end of our life isn’t simply to remain with the teachings that I learned from my fourth grade teacher. The point is I take that learning, and I use it to live my life.

            So we can understand what Jesus tells us with the examples that follow the introduction. The attitude Jesus asks of us is not an attitude of doing the minimum necessary. It is not an attitude of doing the minimum necessary. It is important to avoid sin, of course, but it is not enough. Let’s think of an example. What would happen if a child were to tell his mother: Mom, I was very good today! I didn’t break any windows, I didn’t tell lies, I didn’t steal! Maybe it would be fine for a really young child, or for a child who was really bad before. Maybe. But let’s think what would happen if the husband said to his wife: My love, today I was very good! I didn’t cheat on you, I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t steal any car! Will the wife be happy? Probably not, because it is not enough not to do evil. We must do good. Avoiding sin is important, of course, but it is not enough to make a saint. Avoiding sin is the bare minimum.

There are people in this world who do nothing wrong, because they simply do nothing. Period. There are people in this world who do nothing wrong, because they simply do nothing. But we don’t go to heaven because of the bad things we haven’t done, but rather because of the good things we’ve done. God, I didn’t kill anyone, can I enter heaven? The world offers us comfort, but we were not made for comfort. We were made for greatness. We think what greatness for us consists of: prayer, vocation, sacrifice. . . .

Let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Refuge of Sinners, for the grace to love Christ more and more throughout this year, and to show this love in keeping His commandments.

[1] Cf. William Barclay’s Commentary on Matthew.

[2] Ibid; see also Danby, Herbert, The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011).

[3] See William Barclay’s Commentary on Matthew on this passage for some excellent examples.

[4] Rabanus Maur, cited in the Catena Aurea: “Apte quoque Graecum iota, et non iod Hebraeum posuit, quia iota in numero, decem significat, et Decalogum legis enumerat, cuius quidem apex et perfectio est Evangelium.”



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