Chapter five of Matthew’s Gospel ends with a declaration by Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” He then proceeded to push every one of the laws to a radical conclusion. He extended “you shall not kill” to “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” “You shall not commit adultery” became “everyone who looks at a
woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce” became “whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery.”
These statements are jarring, to say the least. Was Jesus exaggerating to make a point? Or should these statements be taken literally? I think if we link them to his opening statement: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” we can get a much clearer, and deeper, understanding of his teaching.
Jesus was taking the law, the Ten Commandments and their endless interpretations, and transformed it – fulfilled it. Matthew began chapter five with Jesus listing the new commandments. “How happy are the poor in spirit…How happy are the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, how happy are the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers.” Jesus transformed the old law from “You shall not” to “how happy you can be.” We read these last Sunday.
Today’s gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, and really challenges us to take a giant spiritual step. Jesus opened the door to joy. If we follow Jesus’ example by not living for ourselves, but for others, the “thou shalt nots” of the old law easily give way to the joy of the beatitudes. “Thou shalt not” leads to a spirituality based on divine judgment. The beatitudes lead to a love of self and love of neighbor, and a wonderful knowledge that we’re loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father.