IN THIS Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 5:17-37) Jesus teaches us the deeper meaning of obedience to the commandments in the Old Testament and the moral teachings of the prophets. He tells us that he came not to abolish the Law and the prophets’ teachings, but to fulfill them. Further, he tells us that unless our righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Was Jesus kidding? Or was he giving a requirement that is impossible to meet? The scribes and the Pharisees were, in the old Jewish society, most devout in practicing their religion and strictest in obeying the commandments. And then we hear this puzzling statement from Jesus that unless we exceed their acts, we will not pass the standards of heaven? If they who were in the superlative cannot meet God’s standard, then who will?
Jesus explained what he meant, as usual, by giving examples. The scribes and Pharisees were very literal and legalistic in their approach to the commandments. Jesus shows us an approach that goes beyond the letter of the Law to the spirit behind it, and from mere commission or omission of an act to the motivation of the heart.
On the commandment not to kill, he said that while it is true that murder brings judgment to the murderer, nurturing hatred as to hurl insults that degrade a fellow human being’s dignity will also make one liable to punishment in hell.
On the commandment not to commit adultery, he expanded the scope to include not only the actual illicit sexual act, but also adultery of the heart, that is, looking at a woman with lust. He further taught, figuratively, that losing one’s eyes, hands, and for that matter, anything that causes the person to sin, is better than retaining his whole body in this world and yet go to hell in the after-world.
Divorce was not in God’s original plan but it was practiced in the Old Testament times, as seen in Moses’ instruction that whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. Jesus teaches that anyone who divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and that any man who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery. Elsewhere, in Matthew 19:6, Jesus prohibits divorce by bringing back marriage to God’s design, “What God has joined together, and no human being must separate.”
On the commandment not to take false oaths, Jesus goes one step higher by requiring truthfulness in what we say. He teaches us that our yes should actually mean yes, and our no, no, thereby making swearing unnecessary.
These four examples were given by Jesus to illustrate the pattern by which all other commandments are to be obeyed. More than the external obedience is the internal motive for doing or not doing. In Jeremiah 17:10 we read, “I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds.” In the same vein, in the last part of 1 Samuel 16:7 we read, “The Lord looks into the heart,” while in 1 Chronicles 28:9, God tells Solomon that “the Lord searches all hearts and understands all the mind’s thoughts.”
Obedience to the commandments must not be founded on mere compliance for compliance’s sake, often for selfish motives. Obedience to the commandments must spring from genuine love. Asked which of the commandments is the greatest, Jesus had this as his answer, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Dwelling on this truth, St. Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, â€˜You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).