Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away

June 10, 2009

Wednesday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious. 2 Corinthians 3:10-11

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” Matthew 5:17-18


We are the salt of the earth. Father, if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Preserve us so we can flavor your world with the presence of our service to your love. Matthew 5:13-14


Sometimes it is very tempting to take Jesus as his literal word. Today’s gospel from Matthew shows why that is dangerous if we seek to truly hear and understand the meaning of what Jesus was saying.

The literalist might hear this chapter and think that Jesus is here to fulfill every last paragraph, clause and sentence of Mosaic law. However, the notes in the NAB for this chapter point out the following:

Yet the "passing away" of heaven and earth is not necessarily the end of the world understood, as in much apocalyptic literature, as the dissolution of the existing universe. The "turning of the ages" comes with the apocalyptic event of Jesus' death and resurrection, and those to whom this gospel is addressed are living in the new and final age, prophesied by Isaiah as the time of "new heavens and a new earth" (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). Meanwhile, during Jesus' ministry when the kingdom is already breaking in, his mission remains within the framework of the law, though with significant anticipation of the age to come, as the following antitheses (Matthew 5:21-48) show.

Jesus is about to launch into a series of points that show his interpretation of Mosaic law was markedly different than what people heard at the time. Jesus’ different conclusions stretch his followers to be more merciful and perfect (like the Father) than they have been up to this point.

What Jesus is fulfilling is not a promise from the past but a vision for the future.
Jesus takes serious violations like murder and uses them as an example. In his audience, there were many people who would conclude that they could and would never resort to violence or murder. However, Jesus sets a bar that is harder for us to ignore and says you can not even be angry with another sister or brother. “Be first reconciled.”

Jesus takes adultery next. In his audience, there were many men who would conclude that they could and would never cheat on their wife. Again, Jesus sets the bar higher for us and says you don’t have to commit the “act” but you can sin just by looking upon women with lust (a la Jimmy Carter’s famous confession in a Playboy Interview back in 1976). At the time, former President Carter said:

Because I'm just human and I'm tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. The Bible says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times.... This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it.

President Carter concludes that one ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness. Some other trap may await you. Be careful shining your lamp like a city on a hillside. Someone may come along and quench your fire before you even spread the light.


Jesus is leading up to his famous conclusion to this chapter: “So be perfect, (or merciful) just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Emulating the Father is the standard.

Today, when so many of us are trying to follow the popular fashion and wear the right clothes, drive the right car or shop in the right store, Jesus says not to bother with those kinds of things. Instead, copy God, not Calvin Klein or William Ford or Tim Gun or Rosie O’Donnell or Donald Trump.

Sometimes I consider Matthew 5 like the high jump in a track meet. We may not break the world record on the first attempt. However, if we gradually raise the bar on our own behavior, then eventually, we may stretch ourselves to break the record.

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