First Reading: Sir 15:15-20; Psalm: 119. R. v. 1b; Second Reading: 1Cor 2:6-10; Gospel: Mt 5:17-37
THE ESSENCE OF THE COMMANDMENT
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
“Laws are made not basically to guide but to form us.” (Anonymous)
When God gave Israel the Ten Commandment, they understood it as a divine canon meant only to guide and direct their actions so that they may act rightly before God and man. This literal understanding of the commandments by the people of Israel was due to the circumstances surrounding the emergence of this law. Israel’s history, with particular reference to their exodus from Egypt en route to the Promised Land was interrupted intermittently by their disobedience, rash judgment and careless living. It was within this time that God gave them the Ten Commandments; hence their understanding that the commandments were made primarily to guide their actions. But this was a misconception.
The essence of the commandments were not fundamentally to guide their actions but to save their souls. What this implies is that we can literally keep all the commandments and still not be saved unless we understand and live the spirit of the commandments. Little wonder Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” For the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees subsisted in the literal keeping of the law which was not enough to save anyone.
So, what Jesus brings to us in the gospel of today is the rightful way to keep the commandments in order to fulfil the essence and the spirit of these laws. This was why Jesus said “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil them.” What Jesus is saying in essence is that the commandments are complete but our understanding of them is lacking. And so he went on to point out the essential things we neglect in keeping the commandments:
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill . . .’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.
Again Jesus said, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’”
‘“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.’”
Jesus used the introductory clause “But I say to you” to usher in a new insight into the commandments which up until his time was unknown to his people due to their shallow understanding of the law. What Jesus is telling us is that in observing the commandments, actions could be deceptive but the heart never lies. We may not kill, but we can harbour ill feelings weighty enough to destroy someone. We may not commit adultery, but we can lust on the whole act in our hearts. And instead of swearing or making false promises, sincerity of heart suffices. Our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ should reflect the intentions of our hearts.
Jesus is simply saying that if we wanted to be sure if we were really keeping the commandments, we should listen to our hearts. Because actions are not always the true reflection of one’s heart. So the essence of the commandments is to help us nurture purity of heart and to form a good moral conscience so as to live righteously before God and man. If this was missing while we literally kept all the commandments, then we are still far from God. Jesus condemned this kind of Pharisaic righteousness when he said quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mk 7:6).
Another way we can assess ourselves to know if truly we were living the spirit of the law is to consider whether we would act rightly if the commandments were suddenly abolished. If what was stopping us from committing sin and evil were the demands of the commandments, then we are still at the level of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. When God commanded us not to steal, kill, commit adultery or bear false witness; he gave us these commands to form our consciences so that we know what is right and wrong and live accordingly with or without these commands. So a well formed conscience is vital to our salvation.
When Jesus said, “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court,” he was referring to our conscience that condemns us when we do wrong. And there is no other way to make friends or reconcile with our conscience than to begin to act rightly. Because if we failed to do so, our conscience shall hand us over to the judge on the Day of Judgement. And God the true judge will throw us into a place of punishment where we shall pay for our sins.
So, in order for us to be saved, we have to live according to the spirit of the law. And this means listening to the voice of our conscience which God have formed through the gift of his commandments to us. In other words, we cannot be saved by literally keeping the commandments, but by allowing the moral teachings of the commandments to form our hearts into becoming a divine sanctuary wherefrom God speaks to us to direct our words and actions.
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, may your divine commandments help to purify the intentions of our hearts. Amen.