Mark Shea: the power to conquer sin, not simply to identify it

A sculpture of Adam and Eve by Salvador Dalí, cast in 1984. Photo: Fr Lawrence Lew OP
God gives the power not only to diagnose, but to heal: A sculpture of Adam and Eve by Salvador Dalí, 1984. Photo: Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Last time, in this space, we looked at the way Matthew and Luke arrange and relate similar batches of sayings from Jesus in order to make different points to different audiences.

One of the things we noted was that Matthew is making the case to an audience of his fellow Jews that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who fulfils the Jewish Law and the Jewish Prophets.  Accordingly, Matthew divides his gospel into five books just as Torah has five books each divided into a narrative and discourse sections.

In the narrative, we hear what Jesus did and in the discourse section we hear collections of sayings by Jesus.  So in Book I we hear about the Baptism of Jesus and his Temptation in the Wilderness in the narrative section and we get the entire Sermon on the Mount in the discourse section.

What I want to focus on now is what comes after the Sermon on the Mount. (Notice how I am also shaping my use of the gospel material for my purpose of instructing an audience without distorting that material).

With the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew opens the narrative section of Book II in order to show us the power of the Kingdom Jesus has just proclaimed in Book I.  For it is one thing to give us the law, but it’s another thing to give us the power we are going to need to keep that law (which is, until the coming of Christ, one thing that has been withheld from God’s people).

The impossibility of keeping the law of Moses without the power of God is discussed both in Jesus’ and in Paul’s teaching.  For both, the old law is good, but its goodness is like the goodness of an X-ray machine.  It is essential to the healing process because it reveals what is broken in us.

But, like the X-ray machine, that’s all the old law can do.  It cannot heal.  It can only diagnose and condemn the evil within.  To heal the evil requires the grace of the Divine Physician.

That is why Jesus keeps drawing out the implications of the old law by saying things like, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt 5:21–22) and “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27–28).

His point is that sin begins in the heart and must be rooted out of the heart – and that we cannot hope to do that without his help.  The old law can only tell us we are sick with sin and condemn that.  It cannot change or heal us and neither can we without the help of grace.  But the new law, coming with grace and power of Christ himself to change us, can empower us and transform our lives.

Therefore, the narrative section of Book II (Matthew chapters 8 and 9) assembles ten miracle stories from Jesus’ Galilean ministry.  To the untutored eye, these stories look like a random jumble of healings and anecdotes with a resurrection or two thrown in for good measure. But in fact there is a golden thread connecting them all and, once you see it, you can never unsee it again.  It is this: these miracle stories showcase Jesus’ power over sin and defilement.

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