There is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 5:17-37). Certainly it seems like it could have been split up into five readings. But let’s avoid getting caught up in the details, because we’d risk missing the forest for the trees, and there’s a reason all these commands are kept together. There’s something that underlies all of them that we are supposed to understand.
Today’s psalm (Psalm 119) says “Open my eyes that I may see the wonders of your law.” That’s what Jesus is telling us today. But what are the wonders of the law?
Have you ever wondered why the Ten Commandments were on two tablets?
Typically when you see them depicted, you’ll see three on one tablet and seven on the other. Any idea why that is?
The reason the first tablet of the commandments has only three is that the first three commandments — or four, depending on how you number them — are about our relationship with God. The second tablet contains seven or six commandments, again depending on how you number them, that deal with our relationships with one another.
It’s important for us to realize that the Ten Commandments do not have a primary role in the life of the Christian. That’s because they represent the absolute minimum for all people to be able to live together. For us, the Commandments are foundational, not aspirational.
If I see the Ten Commandments as the primary measure of my life, then I congratulate myself and consider myself morally superior for never having killed someone. Nailed it! Clearly there’s something wrong with that attitude.
And if I am still struggling with living according to the Ten Commandments, and I am constantly returning to confession obsessed with the Ten Commandments, I am stunted in my spiritual growth. It’s like repeating the ABCs over and over without moving on and learning to read.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us not to just consider the commandments as a bunch of laws, but an invitation to relationship, a life of love.
Stop congratulating yourself that you are not having an affair, Jesus says. Instead focus on your relationship with your spouse. Make that relationship so deep and loving that you would never even think about being with someone else.
Stop congratulating yourself that you haven’t killed anyone. Instead focus on treating each other with respect. The word “raqa” is a deeply insulting word, meaning that one is absolutely worthless and will never amount to anything. Maybe when we insult another that way, the insult really applies to us.
There are plenty of challenges for everyone in today’s gospel. There is something about divorce, but also something about swearing oaths — something the Church demands of some people even today, although Jesus clearly tells us not to. His vision for us is to live a life of such integrity that when we say simply “Yes” or “No,” we will be believed without an oath.
If we blindly follow the laws of God merely because they are laws, we are missing out on something. We split hairs, parse words, look for loopholes and exceptions. After all, laws are to be approached legalistically, no?
Instead let’s stop and ask “Why?” Why do we have these laws? Why should we follow them? Just because they are laws?
Today’s psalm reads: “Train me to observe your law, to keep it with my heart.” With my heart.
God wants us to understand why we are being asked to live a certain way not for him, but for us. That’s what Jesus is telling us today. God doesn’t want blind followers. He wants us to discern, understand and internalize his ways and live them with joy, not to follow annoying rules just so we can get to heaven.
If that’s our attitude, Jesus says, we might as well be in Gehenna, the stinking, fiery dump outside Jerusalem’s city gates, where the Canaanites used to sacrifice their children.
It’s all about relationships. How do we treasure our relationship with God? How do we honor our relationships with one another? If we truly are invested in these relationships, we don’t need any commandments.
In fact, building relationships is so important that God himself became one of us to grow closer to us. He exposed himself to pain and abandonment to better understand us, not to fulfill some law, but because that’s what God does for those he loves. And that’s the example we’re invited to follow today.
If we can learn to make God’s laws our own, then we can live as St. Augustine told us: “Love, and do what you will.”