Christians and the Torah

The readings for Sunday, February 12, 2017, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; and Matthew 5:17-37.

Today’s Gospel reading is the third in a series of selections from the Sermon on the Mountain. Reading between the lines of Matthew’s Gospel it is clear that one of his purposes was to bring about unity in his Christian Community between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. One of the points of disagreement was the relationship of Christians to the Torah and the Prophets — the two main sections of the Old Testament). Matthew writes in the mid-eighties of the first Christian century. By this time the Letters of St. Paul were widely known in the churches. Among those teachings was his progressive interpretation of the Torah. An example: “One is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law (Torah),” Romans 3:28. So has the Torah been surpassed?

Matthew answers for the conservatives in his congregation, as he attributes to Jesus these words, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah and Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” So there!  Shall they expel those who disagree with the conservatives? Not necessary. “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” At least they are allowed to remain in the Christian Community. Matthew must have understood that his Christians would ask, “So do we have to keep even every interpretation of the Torah, like the scribes and Pharisees do?’ Basically the scribes and Pharisees are for Matthew the same people. They are his favorite antagonists. They maintained that they had to “build a fence around the Torah” to protect it. That “fence” consisted of their interpretations of the Torah and their insistence that those interpretations had to be observed. No way, says Matthew in these words, which do not sound ecumenical at all, “Unless your righteousness (your observance of the Torah — the Laws of Moses) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This awesome statement is going to need some examples as to how Christian “righteousness” exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

For this reason Matthew next adds six theses and their anti-theses — a comparison of Old Testament observance with observance expected of Christians. The first pair: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’” Then the reinterpret-tation for Christians, “But I say to you….” Even anger at one’s brother (a fellow-Christian) is forbidden, even name-calling such as “Raqa” (Dumkopf), or “You fool,” “will be liable to the fire of Gehenna.” Matthew is so insistent on peace between Christians (who were at verbal war in his community) that he demands they make peace with each other before they approach God with a gift at the altar.
Matthew’s continues about sensitive matters — adultery, divorce, remarriage after divorce. The next pair, thesis and antithesis: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Adultery is a scandal to the Christian Community. Therefore Matthew adds a section on scandal — (causing others to stumble). His treatment of scandal sounds much like Islamic Sharia law. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out, and throw it away. Better lose one bodily member than the whole body be thrown into Gehenna.” These statements should be understood as hyperbole, exaggeration, a legitimate biblical tool to warn against the dangers of sin.

The next thesis and antithesis: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce,’” (a reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The “bill of divorce” was for the woman’s protection.  The antithesis: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This teaching is repeated in Matthew 19:3-11. To which Jesus’ disciples reply, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Interpretation depends somewhat on the clause, “except for unchastity” and on St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.  Matthew closes today’s Gospel reading with a fourth thesis and antithesis about oaths. He attributes to Jesus the command not to swear at all, but to have such integrity that a “Yes” or a “No” are as solid and sure as any oath.  Wow! Tough stuff!