First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 5

William Loader

Epiphany 5: 9 February Matthew 5:13-20

Much of what I said in relation to last week's passages applies also to these verses, which need to be taken closely with the beatitudes which precede them. They continue the theme. To shine as a light, to be salt, and to be a city on a hill is to be living out the attitudes espoused in the beatitudes. God is light. Jesus is light. And, says Matthew's Jesus, so are you! But not as an elite, as a group of privileged people, be they of Israel or of the church, who once, perhaps, were good salt, but as people living the kind of life called for in the challenge of the beatitudes. The language of light and city had been used of Israel.. For Matthew there is continuity here. The disciples of Jesus stand in continuity with Israel, are true Israel in what it was called to be. The city on the hill would evoke Zion and the prophecies about peoples coming to worship God and learn of his Law on Zion from all peoples of the earth (as the magi did). Matt 8:11-12 will speak of people coming for a feast, a favourite image of Jesus which lives on (or should) in the celebration of the eucharist. Matthew has Jesus on a mountain giving interpretation of the Law. These are strong echoes. Together we are a city, already gathering for a feast and hearing God's word, but shining?

The strong emphasis on attitude and behaviour is underlined by 5:17-20. Jesus, says Matthew, did not come to lead people away from scripture but to lead them to take it seriously. Jesus is its interpreter. That is why Matthew changes Mark 1:21-22 when he uses it in 7:29 so that he speaks of Jesus teaching with authority but not as their scribes. Jesus teaches as the supreme scribe. He interprets scripture. Everything stands. Nothing is to be abandoned, not a jot or tittle. This sounds like we could be in for legalism of the worst kind, where commandments must be kept to the letter, every 't' crossed, every 'i' dotted. There are still people like that and still some who think they and everyone else ought to be like that in relation to the scripture. But from what follows we see that Matthew indicates definite priorities. He mentions the cultic and ritual side of the Law even less than does Luke. All the emphasis falls on compassion and love.

Some have read 5:17-20 in a very different way. Taking their clue from the word "fulfil' as used of fulfilling prophecy, they see Matthew claiming that Jesus had come to fulfil and so replace the Law and the Prophets. They then read the six contrasts which follow in 5:21-48 as Jesus saying: Moses taught you the old law. I am giving you a new Law. This was more popular in days when people wrongly assumed that Judaism was a legalistic religion which Jesus came to reform or replace. The problem for such an interpretation is that it is counterintuitive. In 5:17 the emphasis is not on abandoning or abolishing, but fulfilling and upholding. Similarly it makes little sense of what follows where in 5:18 Jesus insists that the Law remains in force, down to the last detail and of 5:19 where Matthew's Jesus scolds Christian teachers who teach otherwise! So 5:20 is not saying: you need now to follow my righteousness not the righteousness of the Law. Rather you need to keep the Law, as God's Law, but set priorities within it. The first clue about priorities is in 5:19 which speaks of lesser and greater commandments. The contrasts are not between the Law of Moses and Jesus, but between different ways of hearing the commandments. Jesus belongs to those streams of Judaism of his time where the focus moved from just acts to attitudes and where some things were seen as more central than others.

On this it is worth reading Jesus' words about tithing in 23:23, where you see him attacking preoccupation with tithing, stating what ought to be central (justice and mercy and faith) but then nevertheless noting that the detailed tithing is not to be abandoned. This is typical of Matthew (see also the general introduction to Matthew). It is different from Mark who is prepared to claim that Jesus effectively leads us to abandon such laws, especially any which discriminate against people or no longer make sense, like, in his opinion, food laws. Paul used the same justification for abandoning circumcision. Matthew is more conservative and revises the relevant sections of Mark to remove any implication that some jots or tittles (quite a few of them actually in Mark) are removed. But Matthew is still far from a kind of fundamentalism which treats everything as equally important. Matthew's emphasis is clear from the so called antitheses which follow, but also from the beatitudes which precede.

Epistle: Epiphany 5:  9 February  1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)