Reflection on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Most of us here have experienced the Catholic Church as it was before Vatican II and after it. Think about the focus on externals before the council. Rituals were very important, and they were governed by specific rules – Mass was in Latin, theologians who didn’t adhere strictly to traditional thought were censured, Religious congregations were pretty much in lock-step with rules about our daily lives and work, what we could or could not do, much of it mandated for women by men in Rome. There were catechisms with questions to be memorized. Our relationship with other religions were restricted and on and on.
Then Pope John XXIII opened the windows, the focus shifted from externals to the central message of Jesus – to person above ritual, to freedom of conscience, to love of neighbor, to justice issues, to the people of God, not so much on the externals.
Think back about the reaction of people. Some welcomed the changes with open arms. Others had to think about it, slowly coming to accept the changes. Still others resisted and some still resist. Then there were the emotions involved, family arguments, rejoicing, sadness, bewilderment, resentment. It took time to adjust as those of you who experienced the changes in our own congregation know so well.
All of this experience can help us understand the community for whom Matthew was writing. They were Judeo-Christians, meaning a community of faithful Jews who were just beginning to pull away from Judaism as they sought to follow what Jesus had taught. They were struggling to find their way. Should they continue sacrificing animals and following the many laws of Judaism? Didn’t Jesus break the law by allowing his disciples to eat the grain in the fields on the Sabbath day? What about food laws and hand washing? Did they dare ignore them? It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand what they were experiencing: Most of us have lived through a similar event.
Matthew’s community was becoming a religious sect that would gradually morph into what we know as Christianity. They were suffering growing pains. They wanted to be loyal to Judaism, to friends and family, but also to Jesus.
The heart of Jesus’ message is in the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been hearing over the last couple of weeks. In the continuation of those readings this week, Matthew wants to help his community understand what Jesus was teaching about the law. The law had to be one of the biggest concerns for them. Jesus tells them that if one’s attitude is correct the law is not needed. “You have heard it said to your ancestors, you shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” If there is respect for another person, you will not insult them, injure them or spread gossip about them. It is what is in one’s heart that is important. Jesus continues on with examples of “You have heard, but I say to you . . .”, all of which point back to the love that Jesus hopes is in the hearts of his followers. Love overshadows law and removes the need for it.
So Matthew’s community has some decisions to make. What is important to keep and what can be discarded. What effect will this have on others who are not wanting to give up their Jewish heritage? How can Gentiles who are converting be accommodated? How will the Romans view their sect?
They were successful. They eventually morphed into Christianity and brought the Gentiles with them, but not without great suffering. They were tortured, killed and discriminated against. They were also admired: “See how these Christians love one another.” We owe them a great deal. They taught us valuable lessons about patience and adaptability, about courage and love and about listening to the voice of the Spirit. They got the message. Elsewhere in Scripture Jesus says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.” May we all live in the light. Amen.