Today’s readings point us first to the promises made to the Hebrew people as they escaped from slavery in Egypt and headed toward what was someday to be their homeland. The passage from the gospel of Matthew ends with another promise from Jesus — that whoever fulfills and teaches the Law and Prophets will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Much of the emphasis in today’s readings is on memory, or remembrance to be more accurate. The Book of Deuteronomy was itself a retelling of the story recounted in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers that detailed the origin of the Hebrew people from their arrival at Sinai to their entrance to the Promised Land. The title simply means the Second Law, the codification of legal prescriptions based largely on Exodus and developed after the Babylonian exile. It was, in effect, the remembrance of the Covenant embodied in the mandates of the Mosaic Law.
Today’s gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, seems a little odd because it seems to cast Jesus in the role of a defender of absolute observance of the Mosaic Law, even to the slightest ordinance. Yet we know from Matthew himself that Jesus was pretty loose in his observance of fine points, and later, of course, St. Paul engineered a complete transcendence of the obligations of the Law – now the former Covenant.
Further, while upholding the holiness of the Law, Jesus praised those – the publicans and other sinners — who were regarded with contempt by the Pharisees, themselves strict and uncompromising observers of every point of the Law. Jesus also exempts himself from legal prescriptions based on oral traditions and exhorts his followers to do the same, but he reveres the Law itself and the prophetic writings as expressing the will of God. Observance alone cannot ground entrance into the Kingdom he preaches, especially if it becomes the occasion of condemning others and a source of pride. Like the ancient prophets, Jesus calls for a changed heart and mind, a total dedication to God who gave the Law as a gift and a guide, but now has approached us in the intimacy of personal presence. Salvation, like the Law itself, is a gift. That does not condone breaking the Law, but fulfilling it—bringing it to completion. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually restates the ancient Law, clearly reclaiming the heart and soul of its message – love of God and love of neighbor. Here is one greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than the Temple and even greater than Moses (Mt 12:6, 41, 42, Heb 3:3).
Lent is a good time to remember all this, which is why the story of the Exodus and especially the great Covenant feature so prominently. Jesus calls us not to perfect observance of legal prescriptions, but to the deeper holiness of life which is the intent and glory of the both the Law and the Prophets.