ColumnsSunday’s Word

A wisdom not of this age

February 16, 2020


Sir 15:15-20

The commandments will save you

Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34

Blessed who walk in the law of the Lord

1 Cor 2:6-10

A wisdom not of this age

Mt 5:17-37

Not to abolish but to fulfill


In some ways, Matthew depicts Jesus as the new Moses. He suggests this by showing Jesus delivering five major addresses (Matt 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 14-15), corresponding to the five books of the law, the Pentateuch. The first of these addresses is what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. It stands in the Gospel as a kind of manifesto of Jesus’ program, his mission. And part of that is to offer a new reading of the law and the prophets — the biblical name for what we call the Old Testament.

Here in Chapter 5 we have five instances of reinterpreting the law of Moses. There is a pattern. First, the law is stated (sometimes as it is used rather than as it is written), and then an interpretation follows. These interpretations go deeper, looking to the human drives that make the laws necessary. The Sermon on the Mount amounts to a searching inquiry into what it is in us that requires regulation. In each case, it protests a human practice that actually reveals a deeper problem.

Today, we have the first three examples of Jesus’ reinterpretation — on killing, adultery and oaths — which in this case means testifying solemnly to the truth, not profanity. This is a good example of the procedure the sermon follows. Jesus traces the practice of taking oaths back to the problem of truth telling. He says, in effect, that if everyone made a practice of always telling the truth, it would be unnecessary to have a way of emphasizing that this time its real. The tradition of formal oath-taking reveals our own lack of honesty and transparency. It is, in fact, an indictment. Of course, violating an oath would be a case of taking God’s name in vain, as in the Second Commandment (Exod 20:7).

Similarly, with killing, the topic of the Fifth Commandment (Exod 20:13), the teaching reaches beyond the letter of the law to the impulse behind it. Behind the law against killing is the human tendency to respond to adversity with anger. Anger is often a response due to frustration. The name-calling Jesus cites illustrates such contention. But first, he says, be reconciled. When you come to pray, but are immersed in enmity with another, leave your offering at the altar, solve your mutual difficulties, and then return to offer your gift.

The other instance concerns adultery. This too is one of the Moses commandments — the sixth (Exod 20:14). Again, Jesus traces the need for such a commandment back to the impulse that underlies the problem. In looking at another as a prospect for sexual conquest, one lays the groundwork for the offense.

The teaching on adultery has a codicil that addresses the matter of divorce. It argues in a slightly different way, saying the divorce is another cause of adultery. It points to how others are brought into the difficulties that attend this matter.

In all of these, a common factor is the threat of disrupting the mutual trust that underlies successful community life. Lying, violent altercation and violation of marriage vows all attack the shared tacit agreement of mutual regard that makes community possible. Without trust, it unravels.

Jesus goes beyond the simple assertion of the law, to examine the deeper impulses. This will be a consistent pattern in the Sermon on the Mount. In this way, he doesn’t abandon the law, so much as he interiorizes it. When our hearts are in the right place, the law becomes superfluous.

For reflection: Jesus argues like a rabbi. A rabbinic principle advises “raising a hedge around the law.” Avoid breaking the law by halting one step earlier. Again, Jesus is like Moses, but more.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.