Sunday, February 16, 2014
Matthew highlights Jesus as the fulfillment: 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
During my short and unillustrious basketball career, I had one particular coach who was simply difficult to play for. He highlighted the negative, was very critical and seldom affirming. I found myself in a predicament which was not good for an athlete—simply playing not to fail.
You know what happens when you play not to fail? You fail. You play tight and lose sight on having fun and playing to excel.
For one reason or another, many Catholics find themselves in a similar spot. The media portrays us as an institution judging “do’s” and “don’ts”. Sadly, many Catholics follow suit. Ever hear of Catholic guilt? This comes from a reduction of our faith to a list. For many, being a Catholic means only following rules.
Granted, following the rules is part of living a good human life. Highlighted in the Old Testament (which is roughly three quarters of the Bible) these rules provide us with order. But Jesus came to fulfill the rules of the Old Testament. He says: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And in one of the last verses of the Bible—Revelation 21—he adds, “Behold, I make all things new.” The entire New Testament is aimed at showing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law.
Matthew highlights this truth in many ways in his account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He does so as a Jewish tax collector and convert to the Way. As such, his intended audience was the Jews (as Judaism and Christianity had not yet split) with a desire to convert them to Jesus. Thus he wrote in such a way to appeal to their understanding of the Old Testament.
First, consider how Matthew begins his narrative. If I were to ask you how it begins, I am guessing you would think of Jesus’ infancy narratives. Yet only one Gospel—Luke—begins with Jesus’ birth. Matthew begins in what seems like a strange way—a genealogy. His first words of the most important document he ever wrote: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David the son of Abraham.” He appeals to an important feature of the Old Testament—those lists of unpronounceable names we would skip over. Yet to the Jews these records underscored how God was present throughout the generations. Thus, a Jew reading Matthew’s account would think, “Jesus is connected to all of our history!”
Matthew was well versed in the Old Testament. He quotes these Scriptures more than any other evangelist, seeking to show all the varied ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old.
Additionally, Matthew uses a subtle change in terminology when referring to God’s territory. While the Old Testament frequently labels it kingdom of God (as does the New Testament), Matthew dubs it the kingdom of heaven. He is the only evangelist to do so and uses this simple term as a way to announce Jesus’ work in a whole different realm.
There are two climactic moments in the Gospel according to Matthew. The second is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first we heard from today—the Sermon on a Mount. We must pause to consider this name. Did you know that Luke records this sermon on a plain? Yet Matthew uses the place of a mount. A faithful Jew would be immediately tipped off—who else went up a mountain? Moses. Moses went up the mountain to receive God’s Law for the first time. Jesus went up a mount to fulfill it.
The Sermon on the Mount is full of examples of Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament. He begins with the Beatitudes, showing that what the world considers ridiculous—the poor, grieving, persecuted—are actually blessed. He teaches us to pray by giving us the only prayer he taught in the Our Father. He fulfills the Ten Commandments (which we heard about this morning) and gives the Golden Rule.
In so doing, Jesus did not speak about a list. He did not say, “Do this and don’t do that and you will avoid hell.” He showed us how to live well.
If you are caught in a sort of list-Catholicism, if you are trapped by thinking you are only as good as your last failure to obey the rules, remember Jesus came to bring in the New. For a good reminder of this redeeming fact I encourage you to revisit the Sermon on the Mount in your personal reading and prayer.