Exegetical reflection on the Gospel of the 6th Sunday of Year A, Matt 5:17-37, February 13, 2011
Why did Jesus become incarnate? Some people seem to think that Jesus came to teach us about God, and how to love one another. Others are convinced that he came to be crucified, in order to free us from sin. But if we really see his whole earthly life and examine its purpose, the answer would be different. For instance, he did not come in order to die. Rather, in coming to the world, Jesus wished to establish on earth a new community, the initial embodiment of the kingdom of God. Which is why, he started to call his disciples who would become the germ of his community. Being a new community, it offers its members an entirely different way of life. Consequently, it has a distinctive standard of righteousness. According to Matthew, this righteousness, which disciples must attain, is far above that of the Pharisees (Matt 5:20). This is not to say that the latter’s was bad; or were the Pharisees as a whole a bunch of hypocrites, though that is how they are sometimes seen or perceived. In their action, their motive was to fulfill the stipulations of the people’s covenant with God. If they fulfilled what the law of Moses requires, it is because the will of God is enshrined in the law. Their righteousness is seen in their moral action which is in accord with the law.
For all that, however, Jesus claimed that his disciples must aspire for a new righteousness, which is far above that of the Pharisees. The establishment of that kingdom in the community of disciples requires it. Such righteousness does not take the form of a more strict observance of the law in its minute details, although it is thus sometimes understood. On the contrary, it goes beyond the legal requirement. Its motive is not simply the fulfillment of God’s will as found in the law. It is rather the fulfillment of his will as it is embodied in the life of Jesus himself which, if summarized, is a life of love. Of course, Jesus did not abolish he law; as he himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 5:17). But because the focus has shifted from the law to the person of Jesus, it is not surprising that we are given a new way of understanding the law, in particular, the commandments. In this new righteousness, the commandment is to be seen as part of one’s response to God’s offer in Jesus, and that response in love begins with thought and ends with its execution.
In the Gospel reading, Matthew gives us three examples.  The first is murder (Matt 5:21-26; Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). Under the new righteousness, murder is not to be identified with the taking of life. The taking of life is simply the external display of a crime that really starts with anger. Anger, the source of violent crime, is part of murder and is as detestable, as it is opposed to love. We can murder a person by calling him names, by destroying his reputation. Thus, a Christian must remove anger in his heart by being constantly reconciled with other members of the community.  The same may be said of adultery (Matt 5:27-30; Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18). It is not enough that a Christian should avoid having sex with a person other than his marriage partner. A woman’s dignity can be violated by a man not simply by sexual intercourse. The very source of adultery, lust, is opposed to love, and adultery is simply the execution of a brewing lust in the mind of the adulterer. Hence, Jesus could say, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28).  The last concerns the taking of oaths (Matt 5:33-37; Num 30:2). To call God a witness is not only to violate the majesty of God; it really reflects distrust in one’s neighbor. And distrust has no place in a relationship of love. For Jesus there is no need to take an oath. A word is sufficient guarantee of one’s truthfulness and fidelity.
The point is that, we cannot build a society which embodies the kingdom of God, if it is based merely on strict obedience to prohibitions. I may not murder, but I can hate, or refuse to forgive and talk with my brother in the community. In other words, it is possible that a community can violate the law internally, without having to execute the violation in external behavior. A community may follow all the Ten Commandments, yet it remains unable to exhibit the values of the kingdom in its life, if the members are not one in heart and mind (Acts 4:22). Which is why, law, whether in the Church or outside, is not sufficient for well being, and even for salvation. On the contrary, it can create hypocrites—people who may appear holy, but in really greedy, rapacious, and oppressive. In the new righteousness, one’s action is like spring water. If one gets clean water from the spring, it is because the source of the spring is clean. If the water is dirty, it is because the source itself has dirt. A sinful action is really a matter of inward thought and external action. We may not have sex with another person, but to seriously want it, to lustfully desire it, is no less heinous. And this destroys fraternal relationship. No community will ever externalize the kingdom of God unless its members love one another from the heart and in action. This is not to deny that law can organize a community, but it would be a community of corpses.