The Gospel for Sunday’s Mass is from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), specifically 5:17-37. In a way the Lord is drawing a picture for us of the transformed human person. He is presenting a kind of slide show of what sanctity really is. In understanding this rather lengthy text we do well to reflect on it in three parts.
I. The Power of New Life in Christ – We have discussed before that an important principle of the Christian moral vision is that it is received, not achieved. Holiness is a work of God. The human being acting out the power of his flesh alone cannot keep, and surely cannot fulfill, the Law. The experience of God’s people in the Old Testament bears this out. True holiness (not merely ethical rule-keeping) is possible only by and through God’s grace.
We must understand the moral vision given by Jesus as a description rather than a mere prescription. Notice what the text says here: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law]. It is Jesus who fulfills the Law. And we, who are more and more in Him and He in us, do what He does; it is His work.
Jesus describes these signs that we are transformed human beings:
- Jesus Christ really begins to live His life in us (Gal 2:20).
- The power of His cross goes to work in us and puts sin to death (Rom 6:2).
- Jesus increases and we decrease (Jn 3:30).
- Our old self is crucified with Him so that sin will no longer master us (Rom 6:6-7).
This is a work of God; the power is in the Blood and the cross. The power comes to us by grace. It is all a work of God.
Hence, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is not giving us a rigorous set of rules to follow (and they are rigorous), but is describing what the transformed human person is like. His description is not an impossible ideal, but is set forth as the normal Christian life. The normal Christian is a transformed human person. The normal Christian man has authority over his anger and sexuality, loves his wife and family, and is a man of his word. All this comes to him as the fruit of God’s grace.
It is very important to understand that this is a life offered to us by God. If we do not see it in that we, we are simply left with moral rules: Don’t be so angry or unchaste; don’t get divorced; and don’t lie. Rather, what is offered here is new life in Christ such that, on account of an inner transformation by the power of grace, our anger abates, our unchastity diminishes, our love of others increases, and we speak the truth in love. The power to do this comes not from our flesh but from the Lord, through the power of His cross to put sin to death and bring forth new life in us.
II. The Principle of New Life in Christ – Jesus’ moral vision is that, by His grace, we do not merely keep the Law, but fulfill it. The key word is “fulfill,” meaning to fill something until it is full, to exceed the minimum requirements. When we fulfill the Law, we enter into the full vision and meaning of the Law.
Thus, to use Jesus’ examples from today’s Gospel:
- It is not enough to refrain from killing. True life in God means that I harbor no vengeful hatred. I love even my enemies and am reconciled with people I have wrongfully hurt or offended.
- It is not enough to avoid adultery. True life in Christ means that I am chaste and pure even in my thoughts. By God’s grace, I have authority over what I am thinking and shun unchaste thoughts.
- It is not enough to follow proper divorce law. True life in Christ means I have no desire to divorce my wife. I love her and my children. I am reconciled to her and accept that she is not perfect, just as I am not perfect.
- It is not enough to refrain from swearing false oaths. True life in Christ means speaking the truth in love, being a man of my words. The grace of God keeps me from being duplicitous and deceitful.
In all these ways, the Law is not merely kept; it is fulfilled. It is filled full in that all these implications are abundantly and joyfully lived out as Jesus Christ transforms me. Christ came to fulfill the Law, and as our union with Christ grows more perfect we also fulfill the Law. For what Christ does, we do; we are in Him and He in us. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
III. The Picture of New Life in Christ. – The Lord then continues on to provide six descriptions of a transformed person. Today’s Gospel contains four of them. These pictures are often called “antitheses” because they are all formulated in this way: You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …. The key point is to see them as pictures of what happens to a person in whom Jesus Christ is really living. Let’s look at each.
A. On Anger – You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. The Lord teaches us that the commandment not to kill has a deeper meaning. What leads to murder? Is it not the furnace of anger, retribution, and hatred within us? We may all experience a flash of anger and it passes. Further, there is such a thing as righteous anger, which is caused by the perception of injustice and sin. The Lord Himself exhibited this sort of anger on many occasions. This type of anger is not condemned. Rather the anger that is condemned is that which is born of hate and vengeance, anger that goes so far as to wish harm to another or to deny his human dignity; this is what leads to murder.
That the Lord has this sort of anger in mind is revealed in the examples He cites, which use the words Raqa and fool. These words express contempt and hatred. Raqa has no clear translation, but seems to have had the same impact as the “N word” does today. It was a very hurtful word expressing deep contempt. Such utterances cannot come from a person in whom the Lord authentically lives. And to the degree that we allow Christ to live in us, they will not. Increasingly, we cannot hate others, for the Lord is in us and He died for all of us out of love. How can I hate someone He loves?
The Lord makes it clear that if we don’t rid ourselves of this anger, we are going to jail: Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. Either we allow the Lord to effect this reconciliation in us or we’re off to jail! Whether the jail is Hell or purgatory (for it would seem that there is release from this jail after the last penny is paid), it is jail. We are not going to Heaven unless and until this matter is resolved. Why delay the issue? Let the Lord work it now. Don’t go to jail because of your grudges and your stubborn refusal to admit your own offenses.
B. On Lust – You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The Lord teaches us that the commandment against adultery has a deeper meaning. It is not merely about transgressing marital boundaries. To fill this Law full means to be chaste in all matters, in mind and in heart.
It is certainly wrong to engage in any illicit sexual union, but if one is looking at pornography or fanaticizing about others sexually, one is already in adultery. What the Lord is offering us here is a clean mind and pure heart. He is offering us authority over our sexuality and our thoughts. For those who are in Christ, self-mastery increases and purity of mind and heart become a greater reality. Our flesh alone cannot do this, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ. It is His work in us to give us these gifts.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. We have to be serious about these matters. The Lord is using hyperbole to make a point: it is more serious to sin than to lose your eyesight or one of your limbs.
Most people don’t think this way; they make light of sin—sexual sin in particular. God does not make light of sin. Jesus teaches here that it is worse to lose our soul than to lose a part of our body. If we were to lose our eyesight or a limb to cancer, we would probably beg the Lord to deliver us. Why do we not think of sin in this way? Why are we not horrified to the same degree? We are clearly skewed in our thinking. Jesus is clear that these sorts of sins can land us in Hell (which is here called Gehenna). Lustful thinking, pornography, masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception, and homosexual acts are not part of life in Christ, who wants to give us freedom and authority over our sexual passions.
Many people today are in some pretty serious bondage when it comes to sexuality. Jesus stands before us all and says, “Come let me live in you and give you the gift of sexual purity. It will be my gift to you. It will be my work in you to set you free from all disordered passions.”
C. On Divorce – It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. At the time of the Lord Jesus, divorce was permitted in Israel, but a man had to follow certain rules. But the Lord says that to fulfill marriage law is to love your spouse. He teaches that when He begins to live His life in us, love for our spouse will grow; love for our children will deepen. Divorce won’t even occur to us! Who wants to divorce someone he loves?
If the Lord can help us to love our enemy, then He can surely cause us to love our spouse. Some of the deepest hurts can occur in marriage, but the Lord can heal all wounds and help us to forget the painful things of the past.
The Lord is blunt here. He simply refuses to recognize a piece of paper from a human judge approving a divorce. God is not impressed by a legal document and may well consider the couple married despite it.
The Lord says, “Come to me, bring me your broken marriage, your broken heart. Let me bring healing. Sometimes one of the spouses simply leaves or refuses to live in peace. In such a case, the Lord can heal by removing the loneliness and hurt that might drive one to a second “marriage” in which there is more trouble waiting. Let the Lord bring strength, healing, and a restoration of unity. He still works miracles and sometimes that is what it takes.
D. On Oaths – Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one. The people of Jesus’ time had lots of legalism associated with oaths and lots of tricky ways of watering down the truth. The Lord says, just be a man or woman of your word. When Jesus begins to live His life in us, we speak the truth in Love. When we make commitments, we are faithful to them; we do not lie; we don’t “play games” with the truth. God is truth. As He lives in us, we become the truth, speak the truth, and live the truth. This is the gift that Jesus offers us here.
So, then, here are four pictures of a transformed human being. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is filled more with promises than with prescriptions, descriptions more so than prescriptions. The Lord is telling us what He can and will do for us.
I am a witness to the transformative power of Jesus’ grace and love. I promise you, brethren in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He will do everything He offers us here. It is already happening and is taking deep root in my life. How about you? Are you a witness?
This song, “Breathe in Me,” speaks of the power of Jesus to transform us and of our need for His grace.
You breathe in me, and I’m alive with the power of your holiness.
You breathe in me, and you revive feelings in my soul that I have laid to rest
Chorus: So breathe in me, I need you now.
I’ve never felt so dead within, so breathe in me.
Maybe somehow you can breathe new life in me again