Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: 2-12-17
Peace be with You,
Over the last couple of weekends we have been exploring the understanding of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, as the Light of the world. Moreover, we have been deepening our understanding of what it means for us to be participants in and bearers of the Light that is Christ. Three weekends ago we saw that to say Christ is the Light is to say that he is the Truth, the metaphor of light functioning as a means of communicating how it is that in his very person Christ reveals ultimate reality to us, an ultimate reality that is unity springing forth from the Triune Godhead who is our Creator and whose being under-girds and is meant to pervade every aspect of our life. Then two weekends ago we came to understand how living out the beatitudes conforms us to this reality, allowing the life of God to pervade our existence, which in turn, as we saw last weekend, enables us to testify to this ever deepening relationship to the world, spreading its message of truth to the most broken areas of our world. This weekend we are given a closer look at the framework of this relationship in order that we may allow its structure to serve as the bedrock upon which we set our ladder of beatitude, giving it firm footing.
The gospel for this weekend gives us a look at Jesus we often neglect as a society and that is Jesus as Lawgiver. Quite often, the modern portrayal of Jesus is one of the “nice guy.” We tend to think of Jesus as someone who wants to be our friend, whose love for us encourages us to live life in whatever way we think makes us happy and gives us license to do so for no matter what we do he will love us anyway. Therefore, we conclude, no one can judge me or tell me that what I do is right or wrong. If our gospel does one thing for us today it should enlighten us to the fact that this mode of thinking could not be further from the truth. That being said, our readings from today have much more to offer us.
In order to understand the words spoken by Jesus with respect to the Law in today’s gospel, it is important that we read them within the proper context. We should recall that two weekends ago we began the section of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount. Quite typically when we hear Sermon on the Mount we think of the Beatitudes which begin the sermon at the beginning of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but the truth is that this “sermon” is much longer, running all the way through the end of chapter seven. That being the case, we will be examining its contents all the way up until the beginning of the Season of Lent.
So just what is the Sermon on the Mount? In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine writes that therein we find, “as measured by the highest norms of morality, the perfect pattern of the Christian life” (The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Bk. 1 Ch. 1). Now, as members of a post-modern culture, having heard the word “morality” our ears have all but shut down as we are worried someone is about to tell us what to do. However, let’s take one second to consider what the moral life means to Augustine. You see, for Augustine and the rest of the Church Fathers, along with many other ancient thinkers, the question of morality was essentially coupled with the question of what it means to be happy in the truest sense of the term (cf. Augustine, The Way of Life of the Catholic Church, Bk. 1 Ch. 5.8). Therefore, when the Church Fathers read the Sermon on the Mount, they understood it to be Jesus’ answer to this very same question, as evidenced by his beginning with pronouncements defined by happiness, which we know as the beatitudes. This idea gets a little lost in translation as the word we translate as blessed, is the Greek word makarios, which is just as appropriately translated “happy” as it is translated “blessed.” Therefore, we should understand the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ guide to happiness.
Now, if all that has been said before is actually the case, when we begin reading today’s gospel and hear Jesus telling us “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17), we are a little thrown off. The reason being that in contemporary society, the word “law” has come to have the same negative connotation that “morality” has. In short, both words give us the impression of restraint being placed upon our freedom, which in turn impedes our ability to seek happiness. Therefore, to speak of law, morality, and happiness in the same sentence just doesn’t make sense to us. However, this is merely a misperception on our part which has become culturally embedded within our sensibilities for various reasons but this needn’t be the case, as a couple of quick key points will demonstrate.
First, as Christians we believe in a God who is our Creator. And just as any creator undertakes the act of creation with a specific purpose for that which she or he creates in mind, so too does our God. The Church teaches us that this purpose is etched into the very fabric of our nature. For an explanation as to how this works, we may look to St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas wrote that we are ordered to our end (i.e. our purpose) by “interior principles,” which naturally order or interiorly compel us to seek it out, sort of the way magnetic objects are attracted to one another (Summa Theologiae, I-IIae Q. 1.6 & Q. 2.4), because we naturally desire our perfection which we accomplish by attaining said end/purpose (Summa Theologiae, I-IIae Q. 1.7). Moreover, because we are created in the image of God, Aquinas believed that our end, or our purpose, was beatitude (notice the parallel with the Sermon on the Mount), which he identified as an active participation in our ultimate Good, i.e. God (Summa Theologiae, I-IIae Q. 3.1). Put very simply, we have been created for perfect communion with God, and the very fabric of our nature seeks out this communion, which we, in turn, most basically experience as a desire for happiness.
Notice please that in this discussion of our end/purpose, we have been describing the manner in which things have been created such that they are intrinsically constituted in a very particular way for a particular reason. The description of the way things have been created so as to exist within an ontological structure (i.e. the basic framework of reality), the Church speaks of as the eternal law. Now notice that within this paradigm, the Law is not an arbitrary set of regulations imposed by a larger than life being we know as God, but instead it is a description of ultimate reality, or it tells us the way things really are and have been created to be. Thus, when we hear “law” we should understand it as “statement of reality.” The Church believes that this law has been stitched into the fabric of all things, including ourselves, such that we have a natural understanding of it interiorly and exteriorly through the working of our intellect, this understanding is described as natural law. In addition to the natural law, the Church speaks of another portion of the eternal law known as Divine Law. This is the part of the Law which has been revealed to us and which we normally associate with the Ten Commandments. It is this last type of law that we find Jesus commenting on today.
In today’s gospel, when Jesus speaks of the Law he uses four versions of ‘You have heard it said…but I say’ (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, and 33), indicating that he has come to expand and perfect the law that was given to the people of Israel as part of their covenant with God as he mentions earlier in our gospel for today (Matt. 5:17). Thus, from the perspective of Jesus, not only should we not kill, but we should not be irrationally angry to the point that we insult one another (Matt. 5:21-22); not only should we not cheat on our spouses, but we should not look at someone lustfully (Matt. 5:27-28); and we should not seek a way out of our commitments, such as marriage, but we should remain true to our word (Matt. 5:31-32 & 33-36).
Now, we can easily get caught up in all the “you shall not’s” of Jesus’ words today, and we will walk away feeling scolded, however, this would totally miss the point. Notice what Jesus is saying to us. Through his expansion of the Law, Jesus is exhorting us to live the lives which we have been created to live, and which can lead us to true happiness and that he will later sum up under one comprehensive commandment, i.e. to Love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:37-39). Notice please that in this summation, the whole of our lives are involved, indicating that the law has to do with the very fabric of our nature as mentioned above. Thus, the reason Jesus expands the Law is not to make our lives more onerous and bothersome, but in order that we might live life to the fullest! This is precisely the reason God reveals his law to us, as we are reminded by our first reading today (Sirach 15:15).
My friends, as the Light of Life Jesus comes to reveal to us what it means to live life to the fullest. Today he does this by revealing to us more details as to how to live a fully human life. Jesus isn’t merely suggesting an ethical paradigm, he is making a statement of reality, and today Jesus tells us that it is only by living in accordance with this reality that we can lead full and truly happy lives. This is what our God desires for us more than anything else, the manner in which he created us is set up so as to function in this way, and when we made it impossible for the natural order to function through sin, he sent his Son to save or re-create us by re-integrating us, if you will, into this framework (cf. John 10:10). However, though as our Creator he knows what our purpose is, he will not force us to live in such a manner. Instead, just as our first reading reminds us, we have a choice to make (Sirach 15:15-16), and in the end this choice really is a question of whether we desire a true and lasting happiness that finds us becoming all we have been created to be. If we do, the eyes of faith will allow us to see the words Jesus speaks to us today for what they really are, a portion of the pronouncement by which he stitched together the universe when the Father spoke and brought all into being through him, his Word (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16).
Your servant in Christ,