Jesus’ style of teaching in today’s Gospel is challenging. He begins each teaching by saying something like ‘you have heard how it was said’…‘but I say to you.’ This kind of formula has a twofold structure. It initially recalls the common wisdom for the minimalist right ordering of society before proposing a higher standard aimed at something more than merely obeying the law. It is the difference between existing and living; enduring and flourishing. In the God-fearing society of Jesus’ time He could rightly draw upon examples from Scripture, especially the Ten Commandments, and because the people were familiar with them they could have understood Him. In our modern post-Christian society such examples would mean very little yet our message is the same. We have to encourage people to aim higher and to grasp hold of the prize for which they are made.
Imagine what a similar style of teaching might look like in our time. Perhaps you have heard how it is said ‘we are here for a good time, not a long time’ but I say to you ‘is it not a miracle that we have any time at all?’ Or maybe you have heard how it is said ‘I do no harm to anybody; I live a good life and pay my taxes’ but I say to you ‘surely life is more than taxes and the absence of harm to others.’ Or again you have undoubtedly heard how it is said ‘I am spiritual but I don’t go to Mass; sure most religions say the same thing anyway’ but I say to you ‘not all religions speak of God becoming human, being crucified, dying and rising from the dead.’
There is a certain minimalism that too often pervades our thinking about life. We are sometimes like kids at Christmas, enthralled by the wrapping paper and indifferent towards the gift. We are like a foolish person at a fancy restaurant settling for bread and filling up on it before the main course arrives. What Jesus proposed to His hearers, we need to propose to our contemporaries – the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not rejecting the minimal standard but setting it in its proper relation to the kingdom. Like that bread in the restaurant the Law is but a first step, a starter. Of course with Jesus we Catholics go the whole way, dessert and all!
Today we are asked to think about what we have heard said. That means which ideologies, which cultural trends, which television programmes or newspaper columnists have we heard and ultimately, amid all those cluttering voices, what is it that we have heard Jesus say? What are the things that shape the way we live and how do they relate to the kingdom, if at all? The invitation to the Banquet demands a response.
Gospel Reflection for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 5:17-37)