Every two years the world’s attention turns to the athletes competing in the Olympics. Whether the winter games which is now underway or the summer games, the different athletes train their bodies and minds with intensity as they prepare for the Games. Coaches help the athletes in their training and competition. During the training period it is almost inevitable that the athlete will hear the coach say: “You have got to dig deeper.”
In a certain sense, Jesus says the same thing to us as we strive to understand and to keep the Lord’s commandments. The Gospel passage for today’s Mass comes from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
The passage begins the section that scholars refer to as the “antitheses section.” Jesus opens the teaching by saying: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.”
He affirms the importance of keeping the commandments, the law of the Lord. The first reading likewise affirms the importance of following these commandments. In this case, the law is related to the lawgiver, God. Following God and His plan for life is what brings life. Thus Sirach says, “… if you trust in God, you too shall live.” God’s commands are just and “no one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.”
After Jesus affirms the law he addresses us on how to live the law. He tells us that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus critiques the superficial approach of some of the Pharisees and scribes with regard to obedience to the law. You might remember the passage where the Pharisees question Jesus: “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” Jesus responds: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me….’ You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
Jesus calls us to “dig deeper” when it comes to the commandments. At the heart of the law is love: love of God and love of neighbor. The law can help us live lives of love but only if they are observed in this context.
Jesus then goes on to give specific examples of “going deeper.” He uses a formula statement to give these examples: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” Jesus states a particular law from a group of laws then he gives an instruction on what it means to live this law. For example he says: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment….”
The deepening of the law is obvious. Jesus is telling us that our relationships with other human beings must be based on a genuine or sincere concern for the other. Anger prohibits love, mercy and forgiveness. Jesus shows us that love is at the heart of the command. The pattern continues as he addresses the laws on adultery, divorce and taking oaths.
In addressing adultery Jesus tells us that adultery is not just a matter of being unfaithful to a spouse by being involved with another; it goes much deeper than that. The relationship between husband and wife is based on a commitment to love. Jesus says this love is violated if a husband looks lustfully at another woman.
Using strong language he encourages the hearers to “dig deeper” to live this command: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Obviously he does not want us to take this literally but he does want to stress the point that we cannot have a superficial response to God’s law.
In dealing with oath taking and swearing, Jesus moves the focus from a particular case or point where one might “swear” invoking the name of the Lord as a witness to the truth of a statement. Jesus says not to swear but to speak with honesty all the time: “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”
The teaching regarding divorce is that it is not permissible except for “cases of porneia.” This particular passage is very brief regarding divorce. Jesus gives a fuller treatment in Matthew 19. In that passage Jesus speaks of the marriage covenant as described in Genesis: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
When asked why Moses permitted divorce Jesus replies, “Because of the hardness of your hearts.” Jesus is calling us to a deeper realization of the law of God in our lives. Space does not permit a fuller discussion on Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce. In the particular passage from today’s Gospel he is using this as an example of how we need to “go deeper” in living the law of God.
Jesus invites us to experience the law and the commandments in a new way. He calls us to live the law of God in love. He not only encourages us to live the law and shows us how to do just that, he is the law of love and in his person he fulfills the law and its purpose.
Jesus teaches us how to live in this world according to his law of love so as to prepare for the experience of “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.