not one iota!

(Fr. Cyprian)

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

There are three possible approaches to today’s Gospel (Mt 5:17-37), especially dealing with that first paragraph where Jesus is praising the Law. The most common one is to start out with the assumption that the Jewish religion at the time of Jesus had degenerated into a kind of soulless legalism, and Jesus is addressing that. There was a French Jewish scholar named Jules Isaac who was commissioned by the French president to have an audience with Pope John XXIII before the 2nd Vatican Council, and he presented the pope with a request that the church address certain anti-Semitic teachings that were common in Catholic preaching, and that was actually one of them. Like the idea that the dispersion of the Jews was a providential punishment for the crucifixion, and that God still continues to punish the Jews for its rejection of Jesus, for instance, a little more subtle but very common, is this generalization that somehow all of Judaism had degraded into a soulless legalism. That’s not fair and it’s even subtly anti-Semitic. And that was exactly the original reason for writing Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on Non-Christian Religions, to do away with thinking like that. So let’s get that one out of our minds: not all Jews were soulless legalists, not all of Judaism was or is just legalism.

A second approach, a little more attractive, specifically about this saying of Jesus that not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass away…, follows from the speculation that Jesus was an ardent disciple of John the Baptist. John was an advocate of a return to the covenant, a following of the Law. And early on in Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus was a zealot for the Law as well, calling his people back to a strict observance. But something happens in Jesus after the death of John the Baptist, so the theory goes, and he has a kind of conversion experience where he turns his back on the law, gives up hope in the Law. (Scholars who hold this point of view say that same kind of thing happens in Saint Paul.) But whoever was compiling the Gospel of Matthew strung together these various sayings of Jesus for this beautiful discourse called the Sermon on the Mount, using almost entirely teachings of Jesus from his later years, but one little bit from this earlier time, when Jesus was zealous for the Law, accidentally slipped into this chapter. That seems to have some validity to it.

But there’s a third approach––that Jesus actually said these things then and there as a part of this discourse. All this falls into what our friend Scott Sinclair calls the “hard sayings” of Jesus. And looking at this reading from a liturgical point of view, I actually think that that’s the one that the Church is espousing in this case, since she introduces the gospel reading with two other scriptures that are in praise of the Law, the reading from Sirach and then the responsorial psalm 119, whose every verse contains some praise of the Law or the Word. It all revolves around how you interpret the phrase unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This isn’t necessarily a blanket condemnation of all the scribes and every Pharisee. There were probably many among them who were actually good and pious people holding tenaciously onto their religious tradition in a time of persecution and occupation. And Jesus probably agreed with them about scripture interpretation more than he disagreed with them. In spite of the fact that he is often in other places beating up on the scribes and Pharisees, some scholars think that here he is actually assuming that some of them are holy. If we were to rephrase what Jesus said, maybe in this case he is saying something like not just that you have to be holier than these scribes and Pharisees, but I want you to be even holier than they are. Your holiness must surpass their holiness! I want you to do even more than they do; I am calling you to the ultimate fulfillment of the Law, which is of course summarized in the Law itself––Jesus didn’t invent it: Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole mind and your whole soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not enough to obey the rules! You must do more! All that and more!

All this made me think of my Grama Luci, who was a pious and simple little Sicilian peasant woman. She was constantly praying her rosary, who had all kinds of devotional books around all the time, and who sat in the back of church at Mass murmuring her private prayers all the time. When I went into seminary at a young age, I was exposed to a religion that was far more sophisticated. I started studying theology, I knew all about the new liturgy, and then I studied contemplative spirituality. I in so many ways considered myself beyond all that. But, you know, my grandma was a long-suffering, kind and faithful woman. I might have been more sophisticated than she was; but what I was really being called to be was not holier than my grandmother, but even holier than my grandmother. All that and more! To those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.

Of all things, this also made me think of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which we monks follow. At the end of his rule Saint Benedict says that this is only “a little rule for beginners.” I get this understanding our great forefathers from last century, Don Anselmo Giabani and Don Benedetto Calati. We might be tempted to think then that we can skip the whole thing, but that would be making the same mistake. Don Benedetto said you should start with the last chapter, 73, where Benedict says that thisa is “a little rule for beginners,” and go backwards from there. When Saint Romuald (the founder of our monastic reform) left us under this “little rule for beginners,” he wasn’t saying you have to be holier than all those other monks; he was saying you have to be even holier than they are! All that and more! When you have fulfilled humility and obedience, when you have shown love for the Opus Dei and working with your own hands, when you rid yourself of private possessions and over-indulgence and grumbling––when you have achieved all that, then you can climb to the heights of Paradise. This may be only a little rule, but until we accomplish these things, we’re stuck with it. That’s why Saint Romuald could send hermits out to teach the cenobites, not because they had skipped a stage, but because they had so absorbed the tenets of the Rule as to be a Rule to themselves.

It’s a simple law of evolution, really, whether in biology, the evolution of consciousness or spiritual evolution: every more advanced level includes the perfection of the lower level. We human beings still carry in us the vegetative and animal state. Those who have achieved a higher level attend less to what is below not because they renounce the inferior level but because they possess it in a higher way, the same thing but in a more perfect way. We don’t leave anything behind; we add something more onto it until we reach the All. We don’t skip over anything; we bring it to its perfection, we refine it. This is an important subtle point, and if we don’t understand it we could slide down a slippery slope to a dangerous kind of Gnosticism instead of gnosis, and libertinism rather than the freedom of the children of God. From the left or from the right: we don’t get to skip being fragile beautiful human beings.

There’s a story from the Talmud that relates to our gospel today, when Jesus says that not the smallest letter, not the smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law… In Greek this letter is an iota which would be the equivalent of our letter “i.” You remember the story from Genesis where God changes Abraham’s wife Sarai’s name to Sarah. That was the letter that got dropped and replaced; in Hebrew it’s called yod. Well, the yod was very displeased about getting dropped and replaced, and went to the throne of God Almighty with her complaint. “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. I know that I am the smallest of letters, but you have said that Your Word would remain eternally. How is it that you took me away from the name of the righteous Sarah?” And God thought this was a reasonable complaint and said, “Once you were in the name of a woman at the end of the name. Now I shall put you on the name of a man at the beginning of the name.” And so, the Talmud says, this is what happened in the Book of Numbers when God changes the name of Hoshea son of Nun to I-Hoshea, that is Joshua. Of course for Christians we are happy that that name later becomes Yeshua, the name given to the Son of Mary. Indeed, not the smallest letter, not the smallest part of a letter has passed away: it has been fulfilled in Jesus who doesn’t renounce the inferior level but possesses it in a higher, more perfect way.

Jesus himself was the fulfillment of the Law, and so he was able to take the Law to that toward which it had been pointing all along––perfect love. And he sets the criteria for us as well in his own summation of the Law: we’ll know that we too have fulfilled the Law when we love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves.[1] We’ll know when we have fulfilled the law when we find ourselves ready for absolute self-donation to God, and when we’re ready to lay down our lives for our neighbor, to wash her feet and to bind his wounds.

Someone asked me recently, in the monastic tradition how do you know that a man is living a holy life? How do you discern if one of your monks is really on the right path spiritually? I first thought of the answer of Evagrius. He would say that we’ll know when we’ve fulfilled the Law when we experience apatheia, a perfect ordering of our spirit, soul and body. Ah, but he says that the proof of apatheia is agape. The sign that we’ve reached that perfect ordering of apatheia will be the love that asks for nothing in return. But it’s even easier than that, the same criteria that applies to any follower of Jesus. Jesus himself told us that we should judge a tree by its fruits, and Paul gave us a list of the fruits in the letter to the Galatians. You know a monk is living a holy life when he manifests love, when he manifests joy, peace and patience. We’ll know we have absorbed our monastic Rule and moved beyond it when we’re kind, generous and faithful. I will have fulfilled the Law when I bear the fruit of gentleness and self-control. That’s Paul’s list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And Paul himself says, Against these things there is no law,[2] because they are the fulfillment of the Law.


16 feb 2014


[1] Mt 22:37-39

[2] Gal 5:22-23

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