Jesus told the crowd listening to Him on a mountain that their righteousness must “surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Why?
Gospel (Read Mt 5:17-37)
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave His followers extended, detailed instructions about life in the kingdom of God. He started with the Beatitudes, describing “blessedness” in terms those hearing Him had never heard before. Lest they begin to think that He was completely overturning all they knew about life as God’s people, Jesus reassured them: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” What did He mean?
In this Sermon, Jesus reveals that God’s law always aimed at the heart. It was meant to lead His people into true righteousness and, thus, true happiness. However, in their long history, the Jews learned how hard it was to keep the law that way, from the heart. Their obedience was externalized (when it was there at all) to such a degree that by Jesus’ day, the religious elites (scribes and Pharisees) were regularly guilty of hypocrisy and hearts so hard that they could not recognize Jesus as God’s Messiah. This problem didn’t appear overnight, of course. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet, Jeremiah, declared that God would someday make a new covenant with His people, because they failed so miserably to keep the first one: “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” (see Jer 31:31-34). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to explain what that promise meant.
Using the phrase, “you have heard that it was said,” repeatedly, Jesus tells us that keeping the law of God must begin in the heart, fully embracing the intention of the law, as well as its specific direction. Therefore, the law that prohibits killing is the external expression of an internal law aimed at love and respect for neighbor. It is not enough to refrain from killing someone who has wronged us. Letting anger smolder within us, making judgments about people, and even slandering them verbally all violate the intention of the law against killing (murder starts in the heart). This is certainly righteousness that “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.”
Jesus comments on other parts of the law, both the Ten Commandments (“you shall not commit adultery”) and the Mosaic law. The latter were temporal statutes given by Moses to govern the national life of Israel, such as divorce; they were meant to restrain sin in hard-hearted people. In every case, He looks to the heart, not just the external behavior. If the people listening to him began to wonder how their hearts could ever be good enough to live this way, then His Sermon was hitting the mark.
Jesus came to enable us to see how desperately we all needed God to keep that promise made through Jeremiah so long ago. The New Covenant in His Blood gives us a new heart, because in baptism, we receive God’s Holy Spirit. He is the power of transformation in us, the Spirit of love Who gives us eyes to see that true love of God and neighbor, both in our hearts and in our behavior, is the path to life and happiness.
The law of God is no longer written on tablets of stone. Jesus fulfilled and transformed that law, so that now the Holy Spirit writes it in our hearts and enables us to keep it. Hope!
Possible response: Heavenly Father, I know You desire my love in all that You ask of me, not just the legalism of keeping rules. What a difference that makes.
First Reading (Read Sir 15:15-20)
Sirach describes for us the remarkable decision every human being has to make: “Before men are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” God always wants us to choose well: “No one does He command to act unjustly, to none does He give license to sin.” Yet it is clear that God created man as a free creature who must make the choice “to keep the commandments” and to “trust in God” for himself. Jesus takes up this truth, too, later in the Sermon on the Mount. After laying out the instructions for living God’s way, He ends His teaching with a grand choice: “Everyone, then, who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock … everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand” (see Mt 7:24-27).
How can we choose well? By choosing Jesus, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, each new day brings me a new series of choices. Please help me choose the good and reject the evil, out of love for You.
Psalm (Read Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34)
The psalmist sings his desire for God’s help to “walk in the law of the Lord” and thus to know true blessedness. Here is the longing of the true Israelite—to keep God’s law from the heart: “Give me discernment, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart.” This is the very desire that Jesus takes up and explains in our Gospel reading. Those who truly love God know that life in His kingdom is much more than simply keeping rules: “Blessed are they who observe His decrees, who seek Him with all their heart.” Our obedience to His law must issue out of our great hunger for God Himself—to know and love and please Him. Then we will know the truth of our antiphon: “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Cor 2:6-10)
St. Paul writes to his friends about a wisdom not “of this age.” God’s wisdom sets the wisdom of this world on its head. That is very much the same thing that the Sermon on the Mount does, beginning with the Beatitudes. The life of God’s kingdom can only be understood and lived “through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.”
St. Paul assures us that as difficult as this life in the kingdom can seem—difficult because it costs us everything—there is great reward in it: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
Who can resist a promise like this?
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for the gift of Your Spirit, Who makes the impossibly good life of the Sermon on the Mount possible for us.