This week, Jesus continues his reinterpretation of the Torah, which we usually translate as the Law. As an Evangelist, Matthew will organize these as 6 comparisons. “You have heard that it was said,” and then “but I say to you”. For those of you who do crossword puzzles, these are called the great Antitheses. They are very bold because they show that Jesus has power over the Law. This has great indeed cosmic consequences. But Matthew the Pastor has the more practical concern of organizing and leading his Parish, and in many ways that is what gives his passage its particular power.
In the first Antithesis that we examine today, Jesus agrees with the precept of the law but wants his disciples to go deeper to grasp its truest meaning. He states the law of retribution: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. This may sound savage, but is the root of civilization. Before this, a relatively minor infraction could set off a blood feud which could take many lives. By the time of Jesus, this had been further refined so that a monetary payment could be made to take the place of the body part. Yet, Jesus wants more.
The examples that are given are carefully chosen. To strike someone on the right means striking with the back of one’s hand. As this blow would not be that powerful it does not hurt, but is meant as an insult. It was forbidden in Jewish law to take someone’s cloak as it kept him warm at night. Especially painful would have been to go the extra mile. This clearly reflected the ability of Roman soldiers to force Jewish people to work for them on projects without pay. Also, all Jews were concerned about what we would call predatory lending and wrote strict laws to prevent it. Jesus, however, is saying to give wildly, not just fairly.
Jesus is telling the disciples from his first hearers to you and me that justice is necessary and difficult to fulfill but love is more basic. The kingdom of heaven of which Matthew constantly speaks is harmony between God and humanity, humanity itself and humanity and nature. This is possible only through love. We bring that harmony into the world at those moments, which in my case are very rare, when we act with selfless love.
Matthew knows this first hand. If all his parishioners keep score about who is doing what or who has said what to whom the parish will fail from insufficient harmony. Every pastor from Matthew to me has tried to get more people involved in the day to day operations of the Parish and to some extent we have all failed. Matthew is telling what we have come to call parish ministers that they are being taken for granted and treated unfairly but they are being blessed. Remember the beatitude: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. (Mt 5:10)
The second Antithesis today is more radical. We are told that loving one’s neighbor is not enough but that we must love our enemies as well. This is not deepening our understanding of the law but making it moot. Note what is actually bring replaced here” you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies” There is no sentence in scripture which says to hate your enemies but this was widely presumed to be the case. Indeed, it still is. The easiest way to determine who we are as a people is to state who we are not, to build boundaries both physical and cultural to define ourselves. Jesus however created a society – the church – which defines itself by having no boundaries. How do we know who we are? It cannot be just those whom we find congenial or comfortable. We are told today that even the hated tax collectors do the same. Closer to the bone is that even pagans can call each other brother. Our difference must be found in following the LORD and we are bluntly told that we will be like him when we share our love with all “for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust”. Mt 5:45 The love of the Father is perfect because he squanders it on one and all. Matthew, is the only evangelist who uses the word perfect and he only uses it one other time. Significantly it is when Jesus admonishes the rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21).
Matthew the Pastor knew how easy it would be to build a community by creating an other. Yet he is forbidden to do that. Indeed, all the authors of the New Testament have had to address this issue. Our second reading today is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He corrects those in that community who considered themselves wise and thought themselves superior to those who are not. Those of you who read the daily Mass readings will have been following St James as he instructs his people that the rich are not better than the poor and do not deserve to be treated any differently. Matthew himself is faced with the potentially explosive situation of those born Jewish splitting from those born Gentile over precisely the interpretation of the law. For him to build his Parish his parishioners will need to show love to people who they would normally and perhaps proudly shun. The Church to be truly Jesus’ must be righteous and only in love can this be satisfied, (Mt 5:6)
Building the Church has many meanings but for most Christians it will mean forming and sustaining, a local community, a Parish. Matthew is a wise pastor and knows that neither as individuals nor as community will disciples ever be perfect as the Father is perfect, we will never be that wild in our loving, but he is telling us that we will come much closer to that goal together than we would alone.