First Reading: Sirach 15:15-20 Responsorial: Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34 Second reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37
The Torah (“law” or “teaching”) lies at the heart of Jewish faith and practice. The term is used to speak of the first five books of the Old Testament – those seminal works that form the “constitution” of Israel’s life. The same term may also be used to speak of the entire Old Testament, and of the teachings that have been handed down by the Rabbis.
Sirach speaks of the importance of the free embrace of the law. God did not prevent Adam and Eve from acting on foolish, rebellious impulses. And God will not enforce a return to right relationship with God. In fact, the scriptures are clear in asserting that human beings are free. The Lord of the Universe will help us, but will not compel us to believe or to do good. And as free men and women, we must choose. The burden of freedom is that a real choice has real consequences. And so Sirach warns the people of the importance of their free choice - and his warning recalls the goodness and providence of God. The Lord has given the gift of the commandments – not to force our choice, but to aid our discernment. The law in this sense is not an end in itself, but a pathway to right relationship with God.
Psalm 119 continues with the importance of this law. Here the supplicant wonders at the greatness of the gift and seeks the capacity to hear and do the law of the Lord. There are times when Christians misunderstand the central importance of the law as a form of legalism. They hear Jesus condemn hypocrisy and project the attitudes of the Pharisees onto all of the Old Testament tradition. And yet here we see in this Psalm a passion for the beauty of the law. Here we see that the Torah is not a soulless code, but an invitation to return to God.
Of course Paul, though himself formed in the Pharisaical way, understood the danger of mistaking the law for an end rather than a means. He taught his Christian converts to find their identity and their salvation in relationship to the person of Jesus Christ, rather than in the ritual observance of the law. In fact, he spoke of the law as a “tutor” or “guardian” who has brought us to the moment of relationship with the Lord Jesus. The law does not save, but it does point to the One Who Saves. Here is this particular passage of Corinthians, we hear of a different obstacle to the central importance of right relationship with the Lord Jesus. Some of the Corinthian Christians valued a turn of phrase and a clever argument more than humble submission to the will of God. Paul must remind them too of their helplessness in the project of saving themselves. If the law given by God could not lead people back to right relationship with the Father, how would human argument do any better. Their cleverness has rendered them incapable of perceiving the hidden, mysterious ways of God.
It is puzzling that Matthew’s Gospel appears to presume that Christian believers continued to observe the Mosaic code in the decades after the Christ event. Some scholars even place Matthew’s legacy in opposition to Paul’s radical focus on the sufficiency of the Christ event. It would be a mistake, however, to make too much of the tension between Paul’s teaching (Christ has freed us from the law) and the teachings of Jesus as recorded by Matthew. There is indeed a tension, but Matthew’s focus is not on debate with the Pauline tradition – Matthew after all does not claim that the law saves! Rather, he is concerned with revealing the truth of the Christ event to a Christian community filled with Jews who continue to observe the law.
And so we hear Jesus speak of the ongoing validity of the law. But the focus is actually upon Jesus Himself. Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear in manifold ways that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. If it has an ongoing validity, it is only in relation to Jesus. And notice how the passage continues. Even as Jesus asserts the validity of the Law, He asserts His authority over it. He offers a dramatic reinterpretation of the law: “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” The teaching reaches into the purpose of the law – the summons to right relationship with God. He reaches too into the embrace of the law not as mere legal code, but as a way of loving God with the heart mind and soul. It is a totality of faithful relationship to God. Like the beatitudes, this teaches also echoes the actions of words of Jesus Himself. He does not merely teach the words, He is living the witness of right relationship with God and neighbor. He moves past “thou shalt not” and summons His disciples to live, think, and act with a profound sense of charity. And if they are now struggling with the question of the purpose of the law, then they must pay attention to the One Who offers this new teaching – for it is He Himself who is the purpose, end and meaning of the law.