Matthew 5:17-37
Game Rules
by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
Reprinted be permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Jesus said to his disciples: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills 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, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.  Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.  Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.  But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife – unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.  But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.  Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,' and your 'No’ mean ‘No.’  Anything more is from the evil one.” 

If you've ever enjoyed the comedy of the kindergarten soccer game, you know that, regardless of their passion, the pint-sized athletes often need to be reminded of the game.  Invariably, the finer points elude them - such as which goal is their own.  A good coach patiently explains the rules again and again, but also tries to guide them beyond those rules to the true enjoyment of the game.  After all, rules are important, but the game is more than rules.

Something similar happens in our Gospel today (Mt 5: 17-37), where in Our Lord tells us: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

It's true, life and faith in Jesus is indeed a game changer, just not in the sense that some imagine.  Jesus reminds us that he hasn't come to change any essential moral rules, but rather encourages us to respect those rules and find a new way to play, with a new heart and a new sprit.

Christ makes this clear by doing something that would have shocked his Jewish listeners: He reinterprets the law with divine authority.  "You have heard it said ... but I say to you ...  "Only God would dare add to the law with "I say to you."  Each subsequent example he chooses takes a deep dive into the law and shows hw its fulfillment in faith is much more than exterior observance.  It's about interior conversion and renewal. which is possible only through the renovation of the Holy Spirit.  In order to change our actions, we need to change our hearts and minds, which requires the cross: a life of self-sacrifice and self-gift enlivened by grace.  It also highlights just hw much we nee a Savior to help us in this.

While our faith is certainly more than a game, the general concept here is as true for sports as it is for faith.  In sports, we need the rules to the game to know how to play.  They set the conditions for fair play and for enjoyment to emerge.  Yet, no one in their right mind would argue that soccer is only about observing the rules, or that mere rule-following makes someone a good player.  More to the point, someone who reduces a sport to rule-following is likely to miss out on those things that make it all worthwhile: the teamwork, the strategy, the exercise and the fun.

Too often, we can fall into the trap of thinking that our faith is just rule-following to make us "good people."  Here, we're reminded that following Christ isn't merely about "not killing" or "not stealing" or just sitting in a particular building for an hour on Sunday.  Jesus rekindles our hearts and minds to the much larger positive and interior aspect: We're supposed to love our neighbor, respect his property and worship God.  It's about coming to life in faith, hope, and love, which is a whole different and much more fulfilling way to play the game.

One final note: as we continue to grow in Christ and become like him, living our faith well in the true spirit of the game, the rules fade into the background.  Unlike kindergartners, no one needs to remind World cup players not to pick up the ball with their hands.  Likewise, someone who lives in a spirit of honesty has no need to be told to avoid lying.  someone in love with God has no need to be reminded to worship.  As we fulfill the law in Christ, our need to be reminded of it and our focus on it fades away.  To one who is alive in the love of God, following the law is second nature.  Thus, we ask Our Lord to continue to coach and shape our hearts to enter our faith with a joy and passion that transcends the joy of any game we know: living and worshipping in Spirit and in truth.