Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Our Gospel (Matthew 5:17-37) is all part of the Sermon on the Mount. It is in fact a Midrash, a commentary on that earlier and so well known part with all the ‘Blessed are’… things. Midrash were commentaries, filling out and exploring what a text was all about. Jesus, as we see, does not want to destroy the Jewish law which nurtured him, but to fulfil it, and in consequence, he needed to draw out what some of those laws were really about. Clearly there were some Jews, keen to fulfil the letter of the law for laws sake; like some Pharisees, who had not penetrated to its heart and soul. How true that can be for our own time too. There are some Christians who ‘do their religious duty’, going to Mass with ruthless determination, but who leg-it immediately after, never joining in the community life or offering to do anything for the Church. The same could be said for religious literalists, those who follow the letter of our teaching but lack charity. This is perhaps why Pope Francis is looking to amend our annulment policy to make it more merciful, and perhaps thereby sacrificing some of the legalism involved, for the good of the community. Perhaps each of us too has been guilty of a similar rigidity by which we exclude and separate ourselves from other worshippers. Older Christians will remember times when foreigners, often with differently coloured skins were not made welcome; their needs cast aside in our determination to keep the faith as we have always known it – quite disregarding the fact that Jesus must have been a rather dubious shade of khaki, or at least distinctly off-white!
Jesus’ Midrash therefore explores ways in which Jewish-Christians might become guilty of following the law, but blindly; not exploring its implications. Perhaps the one about adultery is among the most relevant, for how many men today ogle women, whistle or make suggestive remarks? How many use internet porn? How frequently indeed do many of us make cutting remarks about the appearance, dress or behaviour of others? Killing, as Jesus was so aware, can be done equally well by our behaviour as by knives or the hangman’s noose. It is when our Christian communities are at their most welcoming to outsiders that we are at our most godlike, even though, as with Jesus, we may risk the opprobrium of others.
St Paul understood this very well when he wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 2:6-10). Corinth was an international seaport which was a magnet to eastern cults, among them Isis, Cybele and Mithras. Mystery cults, unlike the pantheon of Roman religion, offered ‘belief-in’ something and required commitment from its adherents. Yet these ‘mysteries’ were still rooted in mythologies from the ancient past although they also came with moral codes, demanding to their followers. In this way they had philosophies to offer. Isis was indeed quite morally demanding on its followers, though it had many hangers-on, as was common with pagan cults. Certainly any port would worship Isis as the protector of seafarers and she was also connected to childbirth and many other aspects of life. Yet Paul knew that the yearly acting out of the life and death of the consort of Isis was not enough, and insisted that the real earthly life and death of Jesus was where true wisdom lay; with and in Christ giving full knowledge of the one, eternal God. Some pagan cults then, for all their attractiveness, could not offer what Christianity did, a sharing in the life of God for all his followers. Pagans knew that powerful as the myth of Osiris-Isis was, the gods themselves did not touch human life on the daily basis that Christianity, moved by the Holy Spirit, did. Paul’s battles for the hearts and minds of pagans accordingly played on the differences between the mystery of God Incarnate among us in Christ in contrast to the pagan mystery cults and the attractions they had to offer.
When Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20) wrote his wisdom teaching in the 3rd century BC, he was writing within a very old Jewish tradition in which obedience to the law was essential, but with the added insistence that free will was very important as the preceding verse makes clear. We are not mindless puppets of the Almighty, as Ben Sirach realised. His work was written under Egyptian dominance of Palestine where obedience to Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods was absolute, and he wanted people to be able to make the distinction between blind obedience and obedience given under the grace and freedom of God. Blind faith is therefore not part of either Judaism or Christianity, and clearly the truly devout are required to examine their faith and understand it so that they can live it out with fullness and integrity.