It begins with the tiniest gesture: an interested glance, the brush of a hand. Lifelong love builds from little expressions of care before it becomes total self-surrender to the beloved. At the opposite end of the spectrum, egregious acts of murder, betrayal, rejection and deception begin with little sparks of anger, white lies, lustful looks. In today’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples to watch out for the little things that undermine their love relationships.
The Gospel belies any notion that Jesus overturns the Mosaic law or that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh God who issues strict commandments, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love and mercy. But it is one and the same God of bountiful mercy who gave the law, to whom Jesus is devoted. Jesus insists on the enduring value of the law and his intent to fulfill the tiniest part of it.
What is new is his interpretation of the law, which at times was at odds with that of other religious leaders of his day. His is not a lax interpretation, but one that is even more demanding than theirs. To truly keep the law, one must go beyond it. Jesus speaks to his disciples about the little things that can erode their relationship with God and others and escalate into major offenses.
The formula “You have heard that it was said” introduces each of four commandments; this is followed by Jesus’ invitation to go deeper: “But I say to you....” First, he speaks of taking steps to defuse anger before it reaches a murderous stage. He gives three concrete examples. Primary is to avoid insulting one another. Then, if there has been a rupture in a relationship, a ritual action alone will not mend it. A face to face reconciliation must be sought. Finally, conflicts should not be allowed to escalate to the point of litigation. In this section, Jesus is not speaking about justifiable anger at an unjust situation that gives energy to work for necessary change.
Just as anger can be the first step toward murder, so a lustful look can be the prelude to adultery, a form of which can be divorce. As with justifiable anger, Jesus recognizes situations in which divorce can be a righteous action. It is not clear whether porneia (v. 32) connotes sexual misconduct, i.e., adultery, or whether it refers to marriage to close kin, which was forbidden in Jewish law (Lv 18:6-18; see also Acts 15:20, 29).
The final section centers on honesty in relationships. If Lv 19:12 admonished, “You shall not swear falsely by my name, thus profaning the name of your God,” Jesus says that relations among Christians should be so transparent that there is no need for taking oaths at all.
By instructing his disciples to watch out for the little transgressions, he did not intend to frighten them into obeying a God who was lying in wait to punish them for every pecadillo. Rather, he alerts his followers that little slights, left unchecked, can lead to major offenses with dire consequences. By the same token, great love and greatness in God’s reign begin with little acts of love toward the least brother or sister. One saint who epitomizes this teaching is St. Therese of Lisieux. Through her “little way,” she resolved to love everyone she encountered in all the routine and ordinary interchanges of everyday life. Her greatness was recognized by her canonization only 28 years after her death and the bestowal of the title of doctor of the church a century later.