13 Feb 2011
“‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.’” (Matt. 5:17a) (+)
Today’s Gospel begins with the words I have just shared with you. Jesus starts by saying that His purpose is not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but then Jesus immediately begins to change the Law and the Prophets. For example, right after this, in sections that we did not read this morning, Jesus refers to the Law about “Thou shall not kill.” Then, He changes the Law to mean something new by saying even anger breaks the purpose of the commandment. He moves on to the topic of adultery, but changes its meaning by saying that we can commit adultery even in our thoughts. When we rejoin the text in our reading, Jesus is speaking about the prophetic prohibition against false oaths. But He goes on to say that God intends much more than this. It’s not only when we take solemn vows that we should be concerned about the truth. Instead, says Jesus, “‘Let you “Yes” mean “Yes,” and your “No” mean “No.”’” (5:37a) In other words, speak the truth casually so that your word may always be trusted.
In the Gospel, Jesus didn’t call this changing the Law and the Prophets. He called it fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. Whichever word is used, Jesus makes known that God’s revelation is not static. As a matter of fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ constant antagonists are the scribes and the Pharisees, the keepers of the Law and the Prophets. And Jesus says to us that if we cannot appreciate the spirit behind the Law and the Prophets, rather than just their words, then we become like those scribes and Pharisees, the opponents of Jesus. Our devotion would be to the letter not the purpose of the Law, and to the past not the present. The scribes and the Pharisees stand in Matthew’s Gospel as the ideological opponents of Jesus because they will not focus on where the Law and the Prophets are pointing. Their distance from Jesus is that they will not allow for change, or fulfillment or progress, whichever word we choose. They will not draw the Law and the Prophets into the present; they would rather draw believers back into the past.
Later in the Gospel Jesus speaks for the length of a whole biblical chapter (Matt. 23) in condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees basically because they emphasize what people of faith must do to the smallest part of the Law and Prophets until it becomes burdensome and forces people away from God. You would not believe how many people speak to me of turning away from religion because they can only associate it with guilt and commandments. They seem to me to truly want to worship, but they cannot because of all the unnecessary baggage associated with living the faith.
Jesus further complains that the scribes and Pharisees cannot empathize with the real life needs of believers who wish to draw closer to God. A person of a strong faith was sitting in my rectory living room a few days ago. She is a dedicated parent, and also a lesbian. She spoke about school choices for her gifted child. When a religiously-affiliated school was recommended by another parent sitting there as well, she had to say no and the only reason was because she was gay. The child has enough to process, she said, without the school authorities teaching that the parents are sinners because they love wrong.
Jesus preaches a new perspective. Where the Law sees only actions, the gospel sees people. This is why He moves away in His teaching from the act of killing to the thought of anger, the act of adultery to thoughts of adultery. It’s not just what we do; it’s who we are that matters. Jesus concentrates on the who while the unchanging Law and Prophets look only to the what. The gospel does preach the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, we read today, came to fulfill them not to abolish them. But the gospel exposes what one scholar describes as “the false absolutes from which one is liberated.” (The Secular City, Harvey Cox) False absolutes fit easily on bumper stickers and signs. They’re easy to remember and to quote. But gospel is as complicated because life is complicated.
There’s a small Baptist church from the mid-west that preaches hate like no other. You may have seen them in the news. They come out to protest at all sorts of solemn occasions, often making the news when someone from the military is buried. Their placards are filled with simple statements that God hates this and God hates that, God hates everything and everyone except for them. A counter-protester held-up a sign that I thought was pretty creative. It said: “God hates signs.” A religion of laws can fit on a sign. A gospel about people cannot. And Jesus always saw more value in the person than in what the person did according to the law. I think the church needs to listen more attentively to Jesus’ gospel. We need to make sure that we are not a religion of laws, but of people. We need to be able to look forward to where God wants us to be rather than only backwards to where God once met us. That’s the difference between gospel and law.
To close as we approach Valentine’s Day. Sharon and I have been married for over 20 years, and I’ve said, “That should be enough to define a commitment.” Then I see in last Sunday’s paper the last article in the Globe Magazine. A woman is explaining that she and her ex-husband parted ways at retirement. She judges her marriage a good one, but that it shouldn’t have to be “until death do us part.” I only joked about this. She did it, and then wrote an article. But the reason I mention this is because these ideas are out there and they’re being discussed seriously. If the church is going to remain relevant, it has to move away from the letter of the law and embrace the spirit, the purpose of the law. People don’t discuss these kinds of topics with church because church doesn’t like to discuss, and then we’re left out. And this kind of un-moving theology is not the gospel preached by Jesus. It is of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus condemned. Let us pray to listen again to Jesus’ message as living gospel not as unchanging law. We ask this in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo