Vol. 6, No. 20
Daughters of Mary Instruction
24 January 2017
Lynn D. Clapper
On the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the gospel according to Matthew begins to unfold the story of the Sermon on the Mount. Considered to be one of the most spectacular, and in many ways, one of the most controversial, of Jesus’ teachings, excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount will be the Sunday gospel readings for all the Sundays in Ordinary Time until Lent. Delivered early in Jesus’ public ministry, the message Jesus conveyed to his listeners was both a challenge to the status quo in the Jewish community, and a challenge to the understanding of Law that had developed in the Hebrew culture over the course of centuries. The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were considered radical for Jesus’ time, certainly, but for every generation since Jesus’ day, as well. Understood as Jesus’ call to a higher moral order that seemed to nullify the teachings of the Mosaic Law, Matthew tells us that the Jewish reaction to the Sermon on the Mount was both confusion and indignation. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will listen closely to just what Jesus said that day, and decide for ourselves what our reaction to Jesus’ words will be.
To fully understand the challenge Jesus presented by his teaching in this sermon, we need to understand the importance of the Mosaic Law to the Jewish people. We must go back to the year 1250 BC, in the book of Exodus, and the time of Moses. Hearing the outcry of the enslaved Hebrew people, God called to his servant Moses from a burning bush. God then commanded the astounded Moses to persuade the Egyptian Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people from their 400 years of bondage, and allow them to go with Moses to the land God had promised Abraham. Pharaoh refused Moses’ request, and Yahweh then set in motion a series of plagues of escalating severity that finally forced Pharaoh to allow the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt. With Moses as their leader, they embarked on a journey to the promised land of Canaan. After traveling for three months, Moses led the people to the wilderness at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where God would call Moses up the mountain and deliver the laws that would establish a covenant between Yahweh and his people.
In the book of Exodus we learn this is exactly what Yahweh did. He told Moses to leave the people at the base of the mountain, and amid clouds of smoke and fire, surrounded by peals of thunder and lightning, God delivered the laws we know today as the Ten Commandments. In the ancient world, this action between a god and his people was completely unheard of. Covenants, binding agreements between parties, were traditionally executed between kings and serfs, or were business agreements. They were not agreements between a god and a people. The culture was completely pagan, and idol worship of every sort was the religion of all the peoples of the neighboring cultures, as well as the peoples that occupied the promised land. There was no one god that identified with a people. There was no people that identified with only one God.
The God of Israel would change all of that. Choosing Israel as his own when he entered into the covenant with Abraham hundreds of years earlier, Yahweh now formalized his relationship with the Hebrew people by establishing a covenant of law that described how they would be a holy nation, a chosen people whose love and fealty was for one God alone. The Ten Commandments were delivered through Moses to the people as a code of conduct which they were to follow in showing their love and allegiance to the God who had delivered them from the bondage of slavery. Traditional presentation of the Commandments describes the laws as a series of “Thou shalt nots,” but truer translations reveal a different spirit that emphasizes not the person, but the action. No murdering!; no stealing!; no adultering! The tone is commanding, but the spirit of the Ten Commandments describes a behavior intended to set the Hebrew people apart from all other peoples. They were called to love and honor their God above all other gods, and because of their love for this God who had chosen them they were called to love their neighbors, as well. Yahweh was their God. They were his people.
But, the history of the ancient Hebrews is also a story of just how difficult it was for even a chosen people to adhere to the Commandments their God had set before them. Through the centuries, the Hebrew people stubbornly clung to their pride as the Chosen People of God, but lost their heart for the laws that had been delivered through Moses amid the fire and smoke of Sinai. “… this people draws near with words only and honors me with their lips alone though their hearts are far from me, and fear of me has become mere precept of human teaching” (Isaiah 29:13) Isaiah decried in the eighth century, as over the course of generations, teachers and leaders of the Jewish communities began to write their own interpretations of the Law that became as important as the Law itself. By Jesus’ day, the clearly stated commandments that God delivered to Moses on Sinai had become a complex and burdensome code of law that demanded obedience, but offered very little love. The heart of the Law was broken.
On the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew tells us that Jesus delivered a sermon that established a new kind of law that was in direct contradiction to the hard-hearted traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees. And while Jesus himself was able to sum up the Law of Moses in the commandments to love God above all else, and to love your neighbor, Catherine’s reflection tells us that is it Jesus’ own words that describe the hearts of the people he chose to follow him. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). And though this teaching might be as confusing to us today as it was to the Jews and Gentiles of Jesus’s time, we do not have to react with indignation. Jesus has called us. Yahweh is still our God. We are still his people. Let us honor him with our lips, but follow him with our hearts.
The New American Bible, Revised Edition
The Schocken Bible, Vol. 1, The Five Books of Moses, translation by Everett Fox