“You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors ….. But I say this to you:”
The above quotation is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5 and part of the gospel reading that will be read at Masses this weekend. In reflecting on this Gospel I feel some background information would be helpful.
St Matthew is writing his Gospel about 80 AD, about fifty years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is written at a time when the early Christian community is being criticised by official Jewish leadership. We are told that around this time one of the prayers read in the synagogues was a curse on anyone, especially Jews who converted to Christianity, who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Matthew was probably a scribe himself, a man of learning who clearly respects the Law but he also believed that Jesus was the Messiah.
In accepting Jesus as Messiah he believed that the Law of Moses is surpassed. Jesus is the new law, hence the importance of “You have learnt … but I say”. Of course the “I say” is not Matthew himself speaking but rather Jesus, the son of God, the promised Messiah.
St Matthew constructs the main body of his Gospel in five blocks of narrative with five discourses. Each discourse end with the words: “When Jesus had finished”.
Many writers on this gospel see this construction as Matthew replacing the five books of the Jewish law with what Jesus had to say. In other words it is no longer about the books of the Old Testament but about Jesus.
At the time of Jesus, according to some writings the commandments as given to Moses had become as many as 613 different laws and regulations. 365 negative one corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive ones corresponding to the number of parts believed to be in the human body.
So let us cast ourselves in the situation and mind of someone who was a devout Jew, with great respect for and knowledge of the laws of the Old Testament.
He is among the crowd on the mount of Galilee when Jesus delivers his famous sermon. He listens and he compares. He cannot but be touched by the greatness and purity of what is said. Yet when it comes to the word “I” as used by Jesus he must be perplexed.
So the devout Jew is challenged to set aside this long and rich tradition that he has received from his parents and others and accept the words of this wandering preacher who claims to be the Messiah. It is a real dilemma and a big challenge.
In his writings St Matthew is clear that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets; rather he is their completion.
Jesus goes beyond the law of the Old Testament and puts before people a new vision. For Jesus what really matters is not the external observances but what goes on inside the heart of each human person. It is our thoughts, our values, our motivations, what guides our whole approach to life that is important.
Accepting Jesus and following him means more than keeping laws, it means internalising our faith, making it part of what we are, like the air that we breathe. The believer is challenged to accept Jesus with a willing heart and let his teaching be part of what we are. The Gospels are not a rule book; rather a guide to a new way of living.