The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – 12th February 2023
Lectionary Readings: Sir. 15:15-20; Ps. 118:1-2.4-5.17-18.33-34; 1 Cor. 2:6-10; Matt. 5:17-37
Theme: Fulfilling the Torah
Today’s gospel reading, part of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, begins with a few verses (vv. 17-20) about Jesus’ fidelity to the Torah and his role as a teacher. Having in the first part of chapter 5 encouraged his disciples with nine “Blessed are…” statements, and telling them they are salt of the earth and light for the world, Jesus now warns them against misunderstanding his mission.
That it was misunderstood, with some accusing him of replacing the Torah with his own teaching, seems obvious from the fact that he feels the need to publicly reject such an accusation. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets”: the “law” being the Torah, and the “prophets” the Nevi’im of the Tanakh or Hebrew bible. He goes on to claim that his new vision for the world is not a break with the Law but is in continuity with it, and in fact fulfills its deepest meaning. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus claims 15 times that his teaching fulfills Israel’s scripture.
To emphasize the point about keeping the law, Jesus refers to the scribal practice of giving meticulous attention to the formation of every single letter when copying biblical manuscripts. Making a mistake rendered the whole manuscript invalid, though not permanently. Mistakes could be fixed. “Not one letter” is in Matthew’s Greek the word iota, the name of the smallest Greek letter. Human efforts to change the Torah are doomed to failure: “Equally would they fail, if all nations of the world were to endeavor to annul one word of the Torah” (Leviticus Rabba 19.2; see also Levine & Brettler, 20). So, Jesus advocates adherence to every detail of the law, as the Mishnah urges, “Be careful with a light precept as with a grave one” (Avot 2.1).
In the context of the whole Gospel however, Jesus is not promoting a literalist interpretation of the law, but is concerned with its true intent. This is signaled by inclusion of the prophets along with the law in verse 17, which brings to mind such key texts as Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice”. Matthew cites this verse twice in his Gospel (Bryne, 58).
In challenging his disciples to cultivate righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is setting a very high standard as the scribes and Pharisees were known as righteous. It goes beyond the letter of the law to require a life based on forgiveness, right relationships, trust and love. The six examples that follow, “You have heard… but I say to you… ”, give examples of what this could mean in practice – treating others as God treats us (Bailey, 80).
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Discuss some of the challenges that Jesus’ teaching about righteousness poses for his followers today. 2. What evidence do you see in today’s world that the Risen Jesus is still fulfilling the Scripture?
Bibliography: Bailey, K.E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (London: 2008); Bryne, B. Lifting the Burden(Strathfield: 2004); Levine, A-J. & Brettler, M.Z. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: 2017).
This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
Kevin L McDonnell cfc, Australia, Bat Kol alumnus 2003, 2004, 2005
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