A radical call to conversion
By Br John Bernard Church, O.P. | In our Gospel today we hear Jesus the lawgiver of the New Covenant deepening and perfecting the Mosaic law. But the challenge he sets his followers is difficult, one that ultimately calls us to the very highest dignity, to imitate the perfection of the Father.
Gospel reading: Matthew 5:20-26
Our Lord’s words in this Gospel make for difficult reading. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Christ is calling us not just to follow the Old Law, but to surpass it, to exceed it.
So how is our righteousness, our faith, our right-standing before God, to exceed the commands of the Old Law, the law of the scribes and Pharisees? Our Lord responds to the challenge that he sets with six consecutive passages, each following a similar structure, of which today’s Gospel gives us the first. In each case Jesus begins with a line from the old law (you have heard it said…), before explaining how he calls us to surpass it (but I say to you…). The Son of God speaks with divine authority, the lawgiver of the New Covenant deepening and perfecting the Mosaic law.
The essence of what Jesus says here concerns anger. The Mosaic law forbade murder, but Jesus takes this a significant step further, saying even he who is “angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment”. And it is not just anger that Christ mentions, but any kind of insult, any sign of discord. It is a call to reconciliation.
It is surely one of the hardest teachings we hear in the New Testament. Reconciliation is not easy – not within our families, not within our communities, not within the confessional, not even without our own hearts. And Christ’s teaching is made all the harder by seemingly telling us to be reconciled with God and each other, but not telling us explicitly how. ‘Truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.’ The teaching is difficult and the stakes are high.
There are perhaps two questions we can ask of this Gospel which might help. Why does our Lord begin this set of instructions with anger, and why does he draw specific attention to our gifts placed before the altar?
The vice of anger is, as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, a desire for revenge that is irrational or excessive. Anger can be righteous, as in the indignation that inflamed our Lord when he cleared out the temple. This is when anger is proportionate and in accord with reason, corrective of vice and for the good of justice.
But the form of anger our Lord is calling us to forgo here is the first kind, the vice that is irrational or excessive. It calls for reconciliation because it puts us at odds with our neighbour, a relationship severed, a wound in the body of Christ that requires healing. It forms a pair with the final instruction Christ gives in this set of six, perhaps the hardest of them all: “You have heard that it was said: ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ (Mt 5:43-4). The covenant that is formed in Christ is universal, there is no room for division, for discord, for enmity. Those who choose to follow the way of the Lord Jesus take it upon themselves to be reconciled with all. We can no longer just let enmity be. This set of instructions establishing the New Covenant begins with the law against anger because it is the most radical, and most all-encompassing of Jesus’ demands, echoed in his own prayer to the Father shortly before his crucifixion: ‘that they may be one, even as we are one.’ (Jn 17:21)
But what of Christ’s mention of the gifts before the altar? Why can we not offer gifts before the altar until we have been reconciled? The lesson here has to do with the meaning of sacrifice, of what happens when gifts are offered at the altar. In a sacrifice, God comes down and consumes the offering – the divine love is all-consuming, that movement exhibited in its most resplendent glory on the cross. ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.’ (Jn 12:32). But note that it is God that does the consuming, not us. A heart full of anger and discord has no gift to offer at the altar because it merely attempts to do what only God can do, by trying to consume a person in anger. All we can offer as a gift at the altar of the Lord is our own contrite heart, and the burdens we share with one another. Christ instructs us to be reconciled before we come and offer our gift, because otherwise we come with a heart ill-disposed, and would have nothing to offer.
This is the great call of our Lord in his command for us to surpass the law of the scribes and pharisees: it is a call for a complete conversion of heart. It is not just our outward actions, but our interior dispositions too that we bring to God. Christ closes this section of his sermon on the mount with those famous words ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Our life is to imitate the perfection and the unity that is found in the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. Such a life is not possible if we are at enmity with one another.
Image: The Sacrifice of Elijah Before the Priests of Baal, Fetti c.1621-22; Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
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