Readings: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Psalm 99; Matthew 5:17-19
One of the best preached retreats I experienced was given by Gordian Marshall, a Scottish Dominican who had spent much time working in Jewish-Christian relations. He spoke to us about the gospels as Jewish texts and it was, if the expression can be pardoned, a revelation. He helped us to see things that have become difficult for us to see, not just because we are (most of us) Gentiles but also because our mindset has been shaped by centuries of anti-Judaism, facile contrasts between the Old and the New Testaments, always at the expense of the Old. (If it were as simple as that why do we go on reading the Old Testament in our liturgies and acknowledging it to be, for us too, 'the Word of the Lord'?)
Today's readings invite us to reflect on this question. On the one hand Paul seems to endorse an 'anti-Judaist' interpretation of salvation history: the old dispensation, carved on tablets of stone and destined to pass, has faded. It has been replaced by a new dispensation, in the Spirit and destined to endure, whose glory surpasses the old. It seems straightforward: Christianity is better than Judaism.
But what Paul is saying here is itself Jewish teaching! We find it already in Jeremiah 31 which speaks of the new covenant that will be written on the heart rather than on stone, that will teach from within rather than from without, whereby all will know God. Jeremiah also speaks of the need for a 'circumcision of the heart' (Jer 4:4; 9:26), an interiorisation of the Law's teaching which is repeated many times in the Sermon on the Mount ('you have heard that it was said ... but I say this to you ...'). Likewise Deuteronomy (10:16; 30:6) and Ezekiel (44:7,9) speak of heart-circumcision, anticipating Paul who is eventually converted to this way of understanding (Romans 2:29).
These Old Testament texts clearly anticipate Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact there is nothing in the content of the Sermon that is not found already in the Old Testament. Jesus stands firmly in the line of prophetic and wisdom teaching that we find in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy and Hosea.
When we think of the replacement of one covenant by another, therefore, we must think of it as radical, yes, but as organic, emerging within the living reality that is already there, like the fruit appearing on the tree. That is like the image Paul uses in Romans 9-11 to speak about the way in which the Christian faith depends, for its life, on Judaism: a wild olive branch grafted in, sharing the nourishing sap from the root. Do not consider yourselves superior, Paul says to the Gentiles (how was it that this came to be so comprehensively forgotten?): 'you do not support the root but the root supports you' (Romans 11:11-24).
Christians have done a good public relations job convincing the world that the Sermon on the Mount is the specifically Christian moral teaching. (It taught Gandhi to love Jesus although he was never convinced by Christians.) But its content is already fully present in Judaism. What is new is the Teacher who not only teaches but practises what the Law requires. Where is the Law fulfilled? It cannot be in a new text: the whole point is that the Law's fulfillment is not a text but a life in the Spirit. We might say the Law is fulfilled in the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples, to love one another as he has loved them. Yes, but it is that fulfillment not simply as a proposition or as a text or as a commandment articulated in words. St Augustine glosses Paul in today's first reading saying that even the letter of the gospel kills where it is read or taught without the Spirit.
What is new is the love itself, the Spirit, by whose power the Law is now heard and obeyed and fulfilled. This is the Spirit of Jesus who is (in spite of us) building the Church but who had already - it is in the Church's creed - 'spoken through the prophets'.