The reading from the Gospel according to Matthew this Sunday (Matt 5:17-20) is, in addition to being one of those lengthy pericopes that lead to the young and old alike grumbling about “when will this Gospel end so I can sit down,” a very important text that is also oftentimes misread and misunderstood. The key to understanding the multiple antitheses that are presented by Jesus is found at the very beginning of the Gospel today: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come to to abolish but to fulfill.”
The recently deceased Jesuit scripture scholar, Daniel Harrington, keenly draws out attention to the misreading of this passage that Jesus warns against. Too many see a dichotomy or a distancing of the Christian instruction from the Old Testament law here, yet such a reading flies in the face of Jesus’s own explanation. This is not about how wrong the Jewish people had it and how right the Christian community will get it, quite the opposite. This is about God’s self-disclosive love that follows on the heels of last week’s Salt of the Earth, Light of the World discourse. To be salt and light means to love in the way that Jesus has loved and to do that means to hold an aspirational view of peace, justice, love, and relationship.
What I mean by this is rather than looking at the (biblical) law as a “bottom line” in the spirit of American jurisprudence in which transgressions or violations of the law are marked by the lowest common denominator — you’re a good Christian, until you cross this particular line and then it’s a sin! — Jesus is advocating for a different vision, one that reflects God’s desire and plan for full human living that is seen in a hopeful way. I liken this to an “open roof,” aiming upward, rather than limiting one’s sense of sin and right relationship with a ceiling or focusing downward on the “bottom line” of the behavior most minimally acceptable.
Each of these themes that Jesus discusses — murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce, oaths, reactions to evil, loving enemies — are themes that everybody encounters. How easy would it be, with a “bottom line” approach, to say to oneself: “I am a good person, I haven’t killed anybody, therefore I’m not ‘liable to judgement!'” Yet, Jesus is making the point that we are all sinners and fail to live up to what it is God intends for us.
Sure, it is very unlikely that you or I will murder anybody, but how often do we hold anger toward another, feed our lust for vengeance after we’ve been hurt or wronged, desire ill for another, and so forth? My guess is: pretty regularly!
If we take the roof of our limited expectations off the house of our own making, and stop looking down to make sure we’re standing above the floor of lowest expectations, we realize that God is inviting us to be more and better. There are plenty of ways that we can grow in our faith and in the practice of our relationships, but are we just content to maintain the minimum or are we willing to aspire to something more, something more like God’s will rather than ours, something more like the fulfillment that Jesus is talking about today?
I’m reminded of the scenes in the popular cult film Office Space when Jennifer Aniston’s character, a woman who works at a generic chain restaurant the likes of TGI Fridays, gets into some heated discussions with her supervisor about how many “pieces of flair” she should have on her waitress uniform (see clip below). Pieces of flair are buttons, pins, and various other “fun” items that are attached to the uniform and by which one’s ostensible enthusiasm for and commitment to providing quality service. The non sequitur and absurdity of “pieces of flair” notwithstanding, the attitude that Jennifer Aniston’s character has in this scene comically illustrates this “bottom line” approach, looking down at what one must do and be instead of what one should aspire to do and be.
Jesus is dealing with us, the Jennifer Aniston characters, who want to be told what the minimal requirements are to be “in the good” with God. Jesus challenges our presuppositions in this way, forcing us to come to terms with the fact that we are capable of so much more than the “bottom line.” We should all aspire to be more Christ-like in our living and loving. We should want as many pieces of flair as our particular circumstances allow, not because it’s required, but because we are enthusiastic about God’s will and proclaiming the Kingdom of God with our words and deeds (and flair)!