A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Getting the message straight

Periodically, while listening to someone interesting saying something odd, we often think that the message gets lost because of the “different language.”  I suspect that the “different language” could be either symbolic imagery or self asserted importance–or both.  In order to understand the message we must first understand the nature of the “different language.”

An example of this could be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Gospels for the last three Sundays (5th, 6th, and 7th Sundays in Ordinary Time:  Matt. 5:13-16; Matt. 5:17-37; and Matt. 5: 38-48).  It seems that Jesus’ listeners to his Sermon on the Mount had to confront, and ultimately resolve,  both symbolic imagery and self asserted importance before they got the message straight,

One significant image was the “mountain.”  In biblical thinking, the “mountain” is often considered  the meeting point between heaven and earth.  Consider that God bound  himself with Israel in a covenant of mutual responsibility on MOUNT Sinai (Ex. 19).  “I will be your God and you will be my people IF you keep my commandments.”  So, when a “mountain” became the geographical context for a word from God to his people,  you know something special is about to happen.

Jesus’ “self asserted importance” comes across in two statements: (1)-“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)  (2)-“…You have heard that it was said….But I say to you….” (Matt. 5:38a; 5:39a)

First of all, what does Jesus mean by” fulfillment?”  I think it is safe to say that “fulfillment” means that sinfulness is not only external, but internal as well.  Couple of examples: “You shall not commit adultery.” (external); “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (internal) .  Also:  “You shall not kill…” (external);  “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement….” (internal)

Secondly, it appears that Jesus claims this “self asserted importance” when he states:  “You have heard it said that…But I say to you…”  We may assume that many people knew that Jesus was special, from the time of his baptism, by way of his miracles, and onwards.   This “specialness”  enabled him to establish his relationship with the law–in particular when he pointed out that “fulfillment” was the foundation of his role in that relationship.

Presumably, what he was attempting to accomplish was the conviction that keeping the law would bring about  SHALOM (peace.)  That is to  say that the Hebrew word for “peace” does not mean the absence of conflict, but rather the presence of a good relationship with God.  It is that relationship that makes possible forgiveness, understanding, compasssion, and justice.  We first receive that relationship when we are baptized, and it is constantly reaffirmed by our good deeds and the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The literary device, known as “hyperbole” (truth by exaggeration, for example, “I told you a million times not to do that…) is sometimes used in the Sermon on the Mount.  For example:  “If your eye or hand is a cause of sin for you, cut it off.”

Consequently, our “fulfillment” of the law (keeping the commandments) is much like that of  Jesus’ keeping the law.  We “fulfill” the law by realizing that sinfulness can be internal as well as external, and that a way of dealing effectively with sinfulnesss is to have a good relationship with God from which emanates our promotion of the welfare of our neighbors.  That way, there should be no doubt that we “got the message straight.”

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