16 February 2014

NOT A COPYCAT BUT THE FULFILLMENT

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mt 5:17-37 (Sir 15:15-20 / Ps 119 / 1 Cor 2:6-10)


When a movement stems from an already existing tradition, it is expected that that movement must prove that it is not a mere copycat of the tradition that gave birth to it.  Otherwise, if that movement were a mere photocopy of another, what need is there for it?

Early in the history of the Church, the Christian community had to define in clear terms its relationship with Judaism.  Some people, even those already belonging to the early Church, thought that Christianity was simply a Jewish sect.  Lest we forget, Jesus Himself was a Jew, and so were His first disciples!  Thus, they had high regard for the Jewish tradition, most especially for obedience to the Mosaic Law.  But it was also clear that there are Jewish practices and interpretations of the Mosaic Law they did not agree with: the prohibition to heal during Sabbath, the discrimination against Samaritans and non-Jews, the inordinate practice of fasting, and the obsession with ritual cleanliness, to name just a few.

Truly, it must had been a great challenge for Matthew, who still is widely believed today to have written the Gospel we read in this Mass, how to unite Jewish Christians and Gentile converts though his literary contribution.  The Jewish Christians venerated the tradition of the Mosaic Law while the Gentile converts likewise had their own traditions.  Whoever wrote the Gospel and ascribed it to Matthew must be very smart indeed.

We all know that, before he was called by Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all agree on this specific detail about his resume.  But it seems that the real writer of Matthew was not a tax collector but a scribe.

What is a scribe?  A scribe is a Jewish male of high learning in the field of oral and written law.  The real writer of Matthew, for all we know, could be a scribe because of the evident respectful regard of the Gospel of Matthew for the scribes and the Pharisees.  In Mt 23:2 we read, “The teachers of the law (that means “the scribes”) and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”  However, the same writer of Matthew did not hesitate at all in telling us how Jesus reserved His rashest condemnation for the scribes and the Pharisees.  In Mt 23:13-29 we read the so-called “Seven Woes” of Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees.  In the said verses, Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, blind guides, and worse, whitewashed tombs and brood of vipers.  Thus, while affirming the magisterial role of the scribes and the Pharisees and admonishing the people to obey them, Jesus was also quick in warning His disciples “not to do what the scribes and Pharisees do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23:3).  One of the opening lines of the Gospel today, in fact, issues a graver warning: “I tell you,” Jesus said to His disciples, “unless your righteousness surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).

But what about our anonymous author of the Gospel of Matthew?  Could he be a scribe-turned-disciple of Jesus?  Probably!  Or, ascribing his writings to Matthew, he could be a disciple of the Apostle Matthew himself.  It is really very interesting that after narrating Jesus’ Parables of the Sower, of the Weeds, of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price, and of the Net, our nameless writer of Matthew delivers what seems to be like a punch line in Mt 13:52: Jesus said to His disciples, “Therefore every teacher of the law (thus, a scribe!) who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom things both new and old.”  Intrigued, one cannot help asking, “Was the anonymous writer of the Gospel of Matthew actually referring to himself when he wrote such a definition of a scribe-turned-disciple of Jesus?”  This hypothesis gains strength from the apparent high regard for the Old Testament Law and simultaneous passion for the new vision of Jesus that pervades the Gospel of Matthew that we know.  I run the risk of being judged by Bible scholars as going overboard, but I believe that indeed the author of Matthew was describing his own experience of conversion in Mt 13:52.

But when our mysterious scribe wrote Matthew’s Gospel, in the year 80 A.D., the early Christian community was challenged by a strong criticism from the official leaders of the Jews.  The Jewish religious leaders claimed that the teachings of Jesus violate all that Judaism cherished.  Would you believe, around the year 85 A.D., an official curse was prayed in the synagogue against Jewish Christians and all who believed that Jesus was the Messiah?  And simultaneous with this cursing, Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogues upon the instigation of the Pharisees.

Now we understand better why the nameless writer of Matthew begins our Gospel for today with Jesus declaration: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  Far from disrespecting the Jewish Law, Jesus, in truth, upholds the Law and even condemns those who themselves violate it and who encourage others to do the same.  But even more unparallel is His implied claim that He Himself is the fulfillment of the Law.

In the several admonitions that Jesus makes in the Gospel today, He shows knowledge of and respect for the Mosaic Law.  But, simultaneously He ends the old legal tradition by challenging minimalist observance of it.  For example, murder, from now on, is not only killing another person but also harboring anger against others.  Also, no longer is adultery a mere unlawful, actual, physical, sexual contact with the opposite gender but looking lustfully at the other is already an act of adultery.  Moreover, like the refrain of song, the writer of Matthew placed a specific formula in the very mouth of Jesus: “You heard it said…, but I tell you….”  Without doubt, the anonymous writer of Matthew was making an assertion so wild for the Jews: Jesus is the new Moses; no, Jesus is even greater than Moses!

Jesus challenges the old interpretation and observance of the Law with His new world-view and value-system.  In the New Testament, Jesus is not a mere lawgiver.  Unlike Moses, Jesus Himself is THE Law.  And, without abolishing the Law but perfecting it, Jesus emphasizes the very spirit of every Law: charity – the virtue of loving.  Consequently, a new standard is set for authentic obedience to the Law.  But that standard is not a set of cold criteria but an actual way of life after which every true disciple of the Law must pattern his own.  That standard is Jesus’ own way of life – a life of perfect charity.  That life should be ours, too.  Thus, with the aid of His very own Spirit, we strive to become more and more like Jesus.

A very wealthy man died, leaving a strange will.  “Of the three men in my household,” the will reads, “only one is my real son while the other two are not.  To my real son alone I do bequeath all my possessions.”  Because nothing follows in the will, nobody knows who that real son is.  Thus, as expected, the three men contested the will.  To settle the dispute, the judge of the case ordered that the corpse of the very wealthy man be exhumed and tied to a tree.

“Because there are no conclusive proofs as to which of you is the real son,” the judge tells the three men, “I shall put you into a test.  Each of you is given a spear.  To him whose spear hits closes to your father’s heart I shall give all the inheritance.”

The first hit the head.  The second hit the mouth.  The third, with trembling hands, struggled to aim, hesitated, and gave back his spear to the judge, saying, “Here, sir, just divide the inheritance between the two of them.  I don’t want any of it if it means I have to pierce my father’s heart.”  Thereupon, the judge perfectly knew who the real son among the three.  He gave all the wealth to the third.

The first who hit the head are like some of the scribes who, in their attempt to obey God, study and know every letter of the Law but miss the very spirit of the Law.  The second who hit the mouth are like some of the Pharisees whose obedience to the God is nothing but lip-service.  The third is the real son who is Jesus.  He would never pierce His Father’s heart.  Rather it was His heart that was pierced, “for He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

With due respect to my Jewish friends, Christianity is not a copycat of Judaism.  We are no copycats of any Jew…except one, we pray: Jesus.  The scribe-turned-writer of Matthew tells us that and he was a Jew himself!

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