16 February 2020 | General Interest
6TH SUNDAY YEAR A HOMILY 2020
LAW, PRIORITIES & SPIRIT OVER LETTER
Mt 5.17-37 Ecc 15.16-21 1Cor 2.6-10
Life is full of variety, I have to say. This week I visited the new principals at 2 of our local Catholic secondary schools, Ave Maria & St Bernard’s, to meet them and have a chat about their challenging roles and mission in building community in the ethos of Catholic spirit and tradition. Then, in contrast, I went to see our 3 classes of 75 Preps here at St Therese’s.
They seem to have taken off at school with wide-eyed enthusiasm, always with left field comments and interesting questions, as to my age, why I was there, and why I had false teeth and dinosaur sox! One child said I sounded just like her grandad! (And all agreed with me that it was good to be left-handed!) As we might hope, they’ve already picked up who Jesus is, and that he’s a friend to all, asking us to follow his example of love and care.
Perceptions can also be interesting, as I visited a sick friend out east last Sunday, and her daughter and 2 of her grandchildren from Manly were visiting, the youngest Genevieve, having just started Kinder (as they call it in NSW, Prep to us). By chance, I had baptized all 5 children in the family as they came along when I was up there, and when an older sister rang to speak to Mum, she said: “Josephine, you’ll have to ring back, as Mummy is talking to Jesus”, along with grandma, so a little mistaken identity there!
And now we come to a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with a reflection on developing Old Testament law into a more positive way of looking at and living faith and life, yet emphasizing the importance of continuity of faith, traditions and the law, noting that the spirit of the law, not the letter, is what counts most. Why is it there and what does it mean? Context is all-important.
Without a whole new list of rules and regulations, Jesus outlines attitudes to living faith well, with an emphasis on sincerity from the heart, being far more important than mere external observance. JBC suggests these are the most controversial verses in Matthew’s Gospel, as the words have been interpreted in so many different ways, and no consensus has been reached as to their absolute meaning.
As for law, apart from the Decalogue or Ten Commandments from the OT, Jewish law contained 613 precepts for observance, and religious leaders seem to have expected observant Jews to know and obey them all, some self-righteously ready to catch individuals out in their failures. Then again, how would we go with the 1752 canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, or the 2414 (far too many penalties) canons of the 1917 Code? As a canon lawyer of sorts, I’ve always started at the end of the 1983 Code (being left-handed) , which speaks of law as for the good of the people, and the need for equity, which I interpret in Australian vernacular, as a fair go for all!
And when we look at the overall person and teaching of Jesus, we see that this is his approach and attitude, in the way he speaks and treats individuals, particularly those in trouble of any sort, physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual, women children, sick, sinners and outcasts, often themselves blamed back then for causing their own problems, in a deterministic sort of way, as a copout or excuse for not having a responsibility to understand and help them.
So it is Jesus who shows the way to practical observance of the primary law of love, which he proclaims. In the end, the issue is not the details of law, but its fundamental purpose, a new ethic prioritising people, offering mercy over sacrifice. The JBC describes how Jesus “was a free spirit who directly confronted life situations in his healings and parables, without carefully citing texts.” Matthew is concerned about the Jewish law not being dismissed but focuses on the important values espoused by Jesus, in contrast with Paul, who “prefers an ethics of values like faith, hope and love, and waling in the Spirit to a legal ethics”, not so constrained by the old law, but more open to new expression, not at all concerned about the ritual and ceremonial side of Jewish worship and practice. The common ground for Paul and Matthew is the focus on the law of love, as proclaimed by Jesus, for God and neighbour.
The clear instruction is against the common hypocrisy of the know it all religious leaders, who teach the law in ethics and ritual, but who fail to follow through. Matthew expresses a horror of hypocrisy of teaching one thing and doing another, for those who do not practise what they preach.
Then Matthew moves to Jesus teaching what is called “The New Ethic”, as he moves beyond the OT Torah, deepening and radicalizing it. And so we have the challenging command to deal with natural anger in an appropriate way, by acknowledging it but seeking to understand, reconcile and forgive before fronting the altar with ritual sacrifice. Conflict, misunderstanding and differences of opinion are natural, and to be expected in life, but are to be dealt with in a civilized amicable way, rather than escalation of hostilities, and certainly not hatred or revenge. Common sense anyway, might also say it’s preferable to sort differences out before heading for court, where the lawyers are awaiting their cut and perhaps seeking an ongoing fight to protract proceedings!
The marriage issue is tricky, but, as I often say (after judging thousands of annulments over 33 years now), divorce is a good thing, as there’s nothing sacred about a dysfunctional, or verbally or physically abusive relationship, where there are unresolvable difficulties or differences. Passionate attraction, theoretical knowledge and good intentions are one thing, and some of us just don’t make good choices, but the capacity and maturity to live out a lifetime commitment in equal partnership of love and life is something far more demanding, and not all of us can manage that. Jesus sets an ideal for marriage as sacred and permanent, but the human reality often enough falls short, and no-one should be bound to the impossible, to misery, fear or unhappiness. There needs to be an avenue to freedom and happiness, and another chance, which you and I all need in some way or other. We also need to remember the example set in Jesus’ attitude to the woman caught in adultery and the one at the well, as well!
It could be concluded that Jesus was advocating an equal role for women in marriage, as the cultural understanding then was that it was a male prerogative and legally and societally, the woman was seen as a possession of the man, and not as an equal partner. Up to that point, it was only the man who could decide on divorce, and the ex-wife and even widow had no rights at all in the culture of the time. Hopefully, she had a caring family who could look after her, but nothing was guaranteed in terms of care or support.
So we see a real concern in Jesus’ teaching for human relationships, in all of their dimensions, to be loving and respectful, with forgiveness and understanding at the heart of it all, as we face the same challenges in our relationships today, at home and beyond. And in the end, in these hazardous days of fake truth all around, let’s mean what we say and say what we mean, as did Horton the Elephant who was ever so faithful 100%!
(School welcoming Mass – “Can I Join Your Club?” by John Kelly & Steph Laberis)
john hannon 16th February 2020