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Sunday 16 February 2020

They are happy who follow God’s law

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; Matthew 5:17-36


By Duncan Macpherson

Features Editor, Roman Catholic Permanent Deacon, Retired Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham

Context: a Sunday Eucharist in a parish in a mixed faith area with a congregation from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds

Aim: to stress that God’s love is totally open ended, and our response is to be the same

Introduction: Before elections some politicians make promises to spend more on hospital, education and public services. Others complain that an open-ended commitment is unwise. Where will the money come from? Would they have done better to have suggested where the money will come from?

People who get married are making an open-ended commitment too. But is it wise to promise ‘till death do us part?’ Given the incidence of marriage breakdown would it not be more prudent to promise ‘till 20 years or even 20 months’ time?’ People like a clear rule. A teacher was encouraging his pupils to read a few verses of the Gospels every night before going to sleep. A boy in the front row looked very worried. The teacher asked him what the matter was, and the boy replied, ‘Please, sir, is it a sin you don’t?’ We can sympathise with the boy; a simple set of rules is the easiest kind or basis for knowing what we should and should not do. Unfortunately, a simple rule-based moral code is not an option for the follower of Jesus Christ. The alternative of having no rules and making up our own moral code as we go along is not an option either. Jesus invites an open-ended commitment.

Good News: In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we need rules but that we must go beyond them. As a religious Jew, Jesus was not asking Jews to give up trying to keep the Jewish law; ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to complete them.’ He illustrates this first by taking the command not to kill, completing it by insisting that having a hate-filled way towards others is also forbidden and that before a sacrifice can be acceptable to, God, the one offering such a sacrifice must be reconciled with anyone with whom he is at odds.

Similarly, it is not enough for a man to abstain from adultery if his inner dispositions are adulterous and his attitude towards women is exploitative. On murder Jesus is extending the prohibition of a grave sin to cover every deliberate mental consent or predisposition to hatred. On adultery, I don’t think Jesus was telling us that sexual attraction is inherently sinful, rather he was striking a blow for the rights and dignity of women? In male dominated cultures attitudes towards women were—and are-- frequently one-sidedly exploitative. Thus too, the Jewish Law allowed divorce but the initiative for divorce rested with the husband and might result in socially isolated women being tempted into a sin that could incur capital punishment.

The teaching of Jesus invites men and women to make a life-long commitment - an open-ended ‘till death do us part’ commitment. Keeping the spirit rather than the letter of God’ law involves genuine sacrifice which Jesus, rather shockingly, compares with the removal of an eye or the amputation of a hand – loss of these were symbols of shame in the Bible.

In the time of Jesus, Jews would swear by God’s heaven or throne or earth to make their oaths less clear than if they were to swear by God himself. Just as divorce should be unnecessary, so too should such oaths, if people could be straightforwardly honest.

Application: As you know, Gospel means ‘good news’ but the texts in today’s Gospel do not sound reassuring. Not enough to keep solemn oaths but to tell the truth all the time--not enough to refrain from murder and adultery, but to aspire to an apparently impossible ideal of inner goodness! However, because God loves us to such an impossible degree, we can begin to go beyond keeping rules and try to love unreservedly. In the Eucharist we celebrate the open-ended, crazy, love of God in Christ. In the words of the hymn, ‘O Bread of Heaven’:

O Bond of love that dost unite

The servant to his living Lord;

Could I dare live and not requite

Such love - then death were meet reward:

I cannot live unless to prove

Some love for such unmeasured love.

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