by Father Ruiz
I wonder what Father Robert Lauder (the only film critic I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in person) thinks about Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic movie “The Ten Commandments,” the remake (in part) of his own 1923 silent film. With Yul Brynner as the pharaoh Ramses and Charlton Heston as Moses, and with the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Yvonne de Carlo heading up an all-star cast, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but came away with only one Oscar for Best Visual Effects. By today’s standards of computer-generated special effects, the special effects come across as just little bit lame to some viewers.
The 1998 Dreamworks animated film “The Prince of Egypt” visually quotes DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea in its climactic scene, with the animation team making it seem as though the Israelites are making their way through an enormous aquarium, with astounding sea creatures swimming past them as they walk dry-shod through the midst of the towering walls of water to their right and left.
As hard as the animation team must have worked to craft these effects, for me there’s no comparison with the work of cinematographer and special effects wizard John P. Fulton in the 1956 film. The time, effort and expense involved in crafting scenes like the parting of the Red Sea, with hundreds of extras cast as Israelites (not to mention the donkeys, sheep and geese) make for the kind of spectacular scene for which the Oscar was well-deserved.
In effect, this Sunday’s Gospel reading is a remake of another crucial scene from the Book of Exodus. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount it is Jesus who is cast in the role of the new Moses. There’s no need for special effects. The Sermon on the Mount begins with narrative cues that make it clear what the evangelist is up to: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him” (Matthew 5:1).
To Matthew’s earliest audiences, this was an unmistakable echo of Exodus 24, where Moses ascends the mountain with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 elders of Israel to gaze on the God of Israel. On the holy mountain, Moses receives the commandments from God. No consuming fire or enveloping cloud in Matthew’s remake though, because the focus of the disciples’ gaze is on Jesus, who speaks God’s Word with His own words, teaching with consummate authority in this first of several extended instructions to His disciples.
Building on Tradition
In the portion of the Sermon on the Mount proclaimed this Sunday, Jesus deals head-on with unrealistic expectations: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” Those who heard these words, and those who were among the first to read them in Matthew’s Gospel, knew that “the law and the prophets” were shorthand for the most important divisions of Israel’s sacred Scriptures, that is, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the prophets. In the Hebrew Bible these include not only the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah and so forth, but also those books to which Christians conventionally refer as the historical books of the Old Testament. There we read of Samuel and Nathan, among other prophetic figures.
Centuries later, Jesus’ words also inoculate us against the deeply mistaken notion that the New Testament renders the Old Testament obsolete. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission explains in its 2002 instruction on “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” Christianity “came to birth in the bosom of first century Judaism … A perennial manifestation of this link to their beginnings is the acceptance by Christians of the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people as the Word of God addressed to themselves as well.”
As the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
Setting the Bar High
The opening line of this Sunday’s Gospel isn’t the only misconception-buster Jesus has for us. Another follows not far behind: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” At first, it might seem that Jesus is setting the bar for entry into the kingdom of heaven incredibly low. After all, aren’t the scribes and Pharisees the “bad guys” whom Jesus accuses of nit-picking and hypocrisy? Guess again! The scribes and Pharisees were intensely and faithfully devoted to Scripture study, so Jesus was setting the bar very high both for his disciples and for us.
Then as now though, study could be a convenient excuse for avoiding the dive into daily drudge, for sidestepping what really needs our attention, and that would be a matter of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Two renowned second-century rabbis had this to say: “Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house…when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action” (b. Kiddushin 40b).
Energy invested in the study of God’s Word in the Scriptures shows the path that leads to fullness of life. The psalmist prays in this Sunday’s responsorial psalm, “Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statues, that I may exactly observe them. Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.”
Study of the Scriptures that stays in our heads – and doesn’t stir our hearts and set our hands and feet in motion, study that doesn’t make a difference in how we live our lives – simply isn’t worth doing.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 119: 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Corinthians 2: 6-10
Matthew 5: 17-37 or Matthew 5: 20-22A, 27-28, 33-34A, 37
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.