Since the movie "Prince of Egypt" hit the theaters, I find it a lot easier to teach Matthew's Gospel. Only those who know who Moses is and what he means to Jews can possibly understand what Matthew is trying to accomplish by his work.
Matthew writes for Jewish Christians. Though most people today would think such a phrase to be an oxymoron, Jesus' first followers saw no contradiction. Matthew's community is composed of second- and third-generation descendants of Jesus' earliest disciples.
Unlike the Gentiles who were becoming Christianity's majority component in the last half of the first century, these people still followed all 613 laws which, according to tradition, Moses had given to Yahweh's Chosen People more than 1,200 years before.
Moses and Jesus
On one hand, the members of Matthew's church demonstrated they were Moses' disciples by keeping the Mosaic laws. On the other hand, they proclaimed they were Jesus' disciples by integrating His death and resurrection into their daily lives. They believed that Jesus never intended to "abolish the law and the prophets." He came only "to fulfill them."
As we hear in Sunday's Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:17-37), their dying and rising with Jesus simply led them to a different interpretation of Moses' 613 laws, a process which all Jewish/Christians experienced.
When Jesus says, "You have heard it said,..." He's referring to one of the Mosaic laws. When He continues with "but I tell you,..." He's giving a new, Christian interpretation to that law. In each case, Jesus' clarification shifts the law's focus. Instead of being just a legal or religious obligation, it becomes an opportunity for deepening one's relationships with others -- even one's enemies.
Jesus warns His audience, "Unless your holiness (your 'otherness') surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God."
Nowhere is this Christian shift clearer and more demanding than in the Mosaic law governing murder. "You have heard the command imposed on your ancestors," Jesus says, "'You shall not commit murder; every murderer will be liable to judgment,' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, 'Raga' (Idiot), will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna."
Because His followers constantly tried to become one with Jesus, who had constantly tried to become one with those around Him, they eventually came to realize that this law involves more than just physical murder. People can be killed with words and attitudes just as easily and cruelly as they can be killed with knives and guns. Further along, Jesus applies similar people-oriented responsibilities to the Mosaic laws on adultery, scandal, divorce and oaths. Relationships always stimulate our consciousness to discover deeper responsibilities.
Paul seems to be referring to this new level of consciousness when he speaks of "a certain wisdom which we express among the spiritually mature" (I Cor 2:6-10). It's a wisdom which those who are splitting the community apart do not have; a wisdom which comes only to those who dare to unite with, not separate from, others; a wisdom which only the Spirit who "scrutinizes... even the deep things of God" can convey; a wisdom which brings responsibilities some would rather avoid.
The first reading (Sir 15:15-20) touches another dimension in this process: the ability to carry out its demands. "If you choose," this devotee of spirit-filled wisdom writes, "you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do God's will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before you are life and death, whichever you choose shall you be given."
As difficult as following God's will is, those who are wiling to attempt it can succeed -- with God's help.
From Sunday's readings, it's clear that there's one major difficulty in being a Christian follower of God: The laws of God continually involve more and more responsibilities as we become more and more involved with those to whom we're committed.