MARCH 22, 2006, HOMILY: MATTHEW 5: 17-19

DO NOT THINK I HAVE COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS. I HAVE COME NOT TO ABOLISH BUT TO FULFILL THEM. We know from other passages in the Gospels that Jesus taught a higher morality than scrupulous obedience to the code of law as revealed in the Book of Deuteronomy. Certain passages would even seem to pass over much that is prescribed in the law of Moses as when he declared that "Love is the fulfillment of the law." Not that he stated that the law did not bind, still less that it falls away so long as one acts through love. Certainly he felt free to interpret the law in a much more humane manner that current practice and authoritative custom permitted. Many instances in the Gospels reveal this broader interpretation: when the disciples plucked ears of grain and shelled them to satisfy hunger he was criticized by the observant Jews; when they ate with unwashed hands contrary to current prescriptions to name but two well-known instances. Although Matthew does not mention it, Mark notes that Jesus quite deliberately stated a principle that does indeed abolish a number of prescriptions of the law concerning food. "Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to this." (Mark 7:14,15). Following this pronouncement, he took his apostles aside, knowing that this doctrine was a break with a long-standing tradition and was contrary to the letter of the Deuteronomic code and repeated this principle with the explanation that "it is from within, from menís hearts, that evil intentions emerge... and make a man unclean." The text adds "Thus he pronounced all foods clean."

Yet in todayís text from Matthew he is quoted as saying: "not the smallest letter of the law, not the smallest part of a letter shall be done away with until it all comes true." It would not be difficult to find other passages of the Gospels that, lifted out of context and read literally, are incompatible with other sayings of the New Testament. When asked by a young man what he must do to possess eternal life, Jesus replied, among other things: "Honor your father and mother" (Mt 19:19) yet in the same chapter he is reported by Matthew as telling Peter that "everyone who has left ... father, mother ... for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over." (Mt 19:29)

A significant feature of Jesusí life and teaching is the fact that he himself did not record his message. Although it is evident that he was highly versed in sacred letters, could cite various parts of the law and prophets most aptly, yet he chose to pass on his teaching by word and example but not by writing. He left that to his chosen disciples. The only time we are told he did write was when he was confronted with the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, and then he merely scratched some letters in the dirt at his feet by way of expressing indifference- or as it contempt- for the eagerness of her accusers to apply the full rigor of the written law to her. The act of speaking is accompanied by many indications of intent and meaning that are not stated in the words. Tone of voice, body language, the persons addressed, the bystanders, the circumstances attending the words- these are all very concrete and specific defining elements of speech. Regularly these features of oral communication remain in good part semi-conscious, if adverted to at all. In writing, many statements admit of various meanings that are clearly not intended by the speaker any one of which will seem to be clearly the proper sense of the text. Irony, sarcasm, vagueness of a phrase in its verbal form convey the intended meaning in speech by tone of voice, by other non-verbal indications that point to the proper sense. Commonly, when spoken words are ambiguous, it is the intent of the speaker to veil his meaning. We see this in St. Johnís Gospel when Jesus replies to the Jews who ask him for a sign that shows his right to purify the temple out of which he has driven the merchants and he answers "Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days." Only in retrospect did his disciples realize that he spoke of the temple of his body, John observes.

Even so, how the words of the Lord were correctly heard, he made clear repeatedly, depended on the dispositions of the hearer as well as on the grace of God that enabled the hearers rightly to perceive their intended sense. The same holds true today as we hear his words preached by those sent to us through his Church and by the inspired, written words of the Sacred Scriptures. Early on, the doctors of the Church came to understand that rightly to interpret the inspired Scriptures required applying the Rule of Faith. This norm asserts that since the same Spirit who is the ultimate source of the text cannot contradict Himself, every passage must be heard and read in light of the assured meanings given elsewhere in the Sacred Writings or, as the instance indicates, affirmed by the Church. How we assimilate and live out the words of the Lord then depends on our learning "the heart of God in the words of God" (St. Gregory the Great), through attention to the movement of the Spirit who speaks to us as he spoke to those who heard them from the lips of Jesus our Savior, or in the depths of their own heart as they reflected on their meaning.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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