Pastoral Reflections

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2017

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 
1 Corinthians 2:6-10 
Matthew 5:17-37

In this week’s long gospel reading we continue with our journey over the teachings contained in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In today’s discourse Matthew gathers some fundamental teachings of Jesus, which constitute the charter for participation in the new ‘Kingdom’.

Since Matthew’s gospel was written for a community of Jewish converts, it is not surprising that this charter includes teachings concerning Jesus’ attitude toward the traditions of old Israel. Understanding this is important for Christians of later generations like ourselves, particularly if we are to appreciate how we, as the new people of God, are related to ancient Israel. Furthermore, it serves to help us appreciate the wealth contained in the Old Testament scriptures.

During his earthly life, Jesus was a faithful observer of Old Testament customs – though he was also critical of the narrow interpretation given them by the Jewish leadership of his day. Clearly, the challenge Jesus brought to the scribes and Pharisees led to confrontations in which he made it clear, that he did not seek an abolition of the traditions of old Israel. His words, ‘not one dot, one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law’ were spoken, no doubt, in such a debate. But the words, which follow that are, ‘until its purpose is achieved’ – may help us to understand what Jesus meant when he declared, ‘I have not come to abolish the Law and the prophets (i.e. the Old Testament scriptures and the traditions they foster), but to complete them’.

The Old Testament was an expression of the Word of God to his people. It was also an expression that was to give way to the absolutely final expression of the divine Word, that is, in the life, death and resurrection of the one who was the divine Word Incarnate. The Old Testament gave witness to the eternal truth of God and God’s designs for humanity. However, it was only a witness in hints and shadows, giving rise to boundless expectations concerning the future. These expectations were eventually and essentially fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

However, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading, this fulfillment was to be a stumbling block to those whose hopes were shaped by expectations of a materialistic or earthly triumph of God’s people. For generations, the Israelites were molded in thinking of a Messiah that would create material satisfaction and would, in a militaristic fashion, drive Rome out of Palestine. God’s final self-expressions in the Savior’s Paschal Mystery were indeed something greater, a ‘hidden wisdom that God predestined to be our glory before the ages began’. However, not everyone shared this understanding. To many the cross was a barrier and a stumbling block to conversion.

The New Law, that ‘completes’ and ‘achieves the purpose’ of the Old Testament’s hints and shadows must, of course, be promulgated by the divine Lawgiver himself. Jesus boldly intimates this in the remarkable series of instructions he gives to his followers. Referring to the divine commands of the Old Law he says, ‘you have learnt how it was said to our ancestors you shall not commit adultery. “I” tell you now that, if you so much as lust in your heart after another, you have committed adultery’. He repeats this dialogue with the commandment of, ‘thou shall not kill, by saying, if you are so much as angry with your brother, “I” say you are guilty of murdering him. Jesus makes these pronouncements with the same authority as the Lawgiver of the Old Testament. Thereby, he makes it abundantly clear that the Lawgiver of the Old Testament is indeed one with him.

The first Christians loved the Old Testament – its hints and shadows gave them a fuller understanding of what God did for the world in Christ. How do we distill all this for our practical daily living? There are some Christian believers who conclude that, all we need for understanding salvation is contained in the New Testament. There are those that describe the Old Testament as about a bygone era and thus it has little to offer us today. I recall a person once characterizing the Old Testament as just a collection of dead books. The truth of the matter is these observations stem from ignorance of the reality that both the New and Old Testaments are inextricably linked. Together, they provide us with the definitive history of God’s intervention with humanity. As children of God, it is incumbent for us to be intimately familiar with the entire Bible. This is why the readings for each Sunday coordinate the essential and complimentary passages from both testaments.

As we move into a new week, I invite each of us, to make a solemn commitment to daily read and mediate on the entirety of the sacred scripture. In doing so, we will become better grounded in our faith, and thus more informed as we apply our faith in our daily living. Many of the critical quotations attributed to Christ during his earthly ministry were not unique to him. For example, the Great Commandment of Love is referenced and taught in the first five books of the Old Testament. This is something that we would not know without personal familiarity with the Old Testament. Another teaching is Jesus’ commentary about the sanctity of marriage in the Gospel of Matthew. This teaching comes initially through the Book of Genesis, the first Book of the Old Testament. Jesus’ teachings borrowed heavily from the Old Testament. His uniqueness and contribution came by how he tweaked these teachings and brought them to a higher level.

Failure to familiarize ourselves with the teachings of the Old Testament disables us from understanding our profound Christian connection with the Jewish faith and traditions. A way to understand the bridge between the Old and New Testaments is that our rational understanding of God comes from the Old, and the heart of God is exposed in the New. We need both, in order to have a comprehensive appreciation of God’s role in our life and the expectations he has of us. We need both as a way of understanding God’s nature, the trinity of attributes; the Father who creates; the Son who redeems; and the Holy Spirit, who serves to regenerate our being and keep us pointed toward the one true God. We need both as a way of appreciating the constancy of God over time. As humans, we are susceptible to fickleness. God is never capricious. How do we know that to be true? The bible, in its totality, tells us so. This is why it is unsafe and risky to delete one portion of the Bible for the sake of another. We have four evangelical traditions in our New Testament. Why do we need four traditions? The four traditions provide us with a comprehensive portrait of Jesus, each stressing different traits and teachings. Together, they give us the definitive portrait of Jesus, and that is why we refer to them collectively as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us cherish the wealth we have in the Bible by personally knowing what it contains. It is wonderful to rely on a student of the Scripture for guidance and understanding. If the student of Scripture is in communion with the Holy Spirit, then we can be assured that we are hearing the unadulterated truth. Another way to assure that we are following the unadulterated truth, is to know it on a firsthand basis.

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