Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 13, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
When we hear this powerful Gospel, with those repeated and challenging words of Jesus: “But I say to you,” we could think it an understatement when St. Paul says, in our second reading, that the wisdom we Christians speak is “not a wisdom of this age,” so much does Christ’s teaching, like his Cross, differ from what the world considers power and success.
Jesus is explaining what he means when he says that he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them, to bring them to completion, what that greater righteousness is that is needed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In every instance Jesus goes beyond what the commandment states to underlying attitudes and urges us to examine our hearts and not to be satisfied with merely external observation. It is not enough to refrain from killing; we are not even to be angry with one another or to use abusive language of another. The duty to seek reconciliation with a person one has offended is more important than the duty to worship God. Early Christian writers caught the meaning well: “God does not wish to accept a sacrifice from people at odds with each other…. He wants concord among believers more than gifts; as long as there is dissension among believers, their offering is not accepted, their prayer is not heard. No one can be a true friend to two people who are enemies to one another, and God does not wish to be a friend to believers while they are enemies” (from Aquinas’ Catena aurea on Matthew).
It is not enough to avoid adultery; we have to avoid lust, too. Is there an injunction of Christ that is more in opposition to what passes for wisdom in the world than this one? How much of advertising, of daily television shows, of movies, never mind the various kinds of pornography so readily available, presumes that there is nothing wrong with selfish sexual desire. Recall how Jimmy Carter was ridiculed because he admitted that he had violated this injunction of the Lord.
Jesus goes to the heart of the matter again with regard to marriage. What husband, what wife, would be content with a spouse whose heart was not in the relationship, who was, say, faithful only out of fear of being caught? This is why Jesus is so rigorous with regard to divorce–it shouldn’t be needed among his disciples.
Finally, today (there are two more of these kinds of statements in next Sunday’s Gospel), Christians should be people of such truthfulness, such honesty, that it is not necessary for them to take oaths. Perjury is not a threat to be feared from people who can be trusted to mean Yes when they say Yes, and mean No when they say No.
Is there any one of us who is not challenged by one or more of these powerful demands of Christ? In all of them he calls us not to be content with what the commandments require. God does not want mere external obedience. Nor is he content if we do things only because he commands them or avoid things because he forbids them. That is the way children, servants, and slaves obey; they follow someone else’s direction; they are not in charge of themselves. God wants us to act as adult sons and daughters doing things because we ourselves love and want the good that God desires and hate and avoid the evil God forbids. In other words, God wants us to love as he loves, to find good what he knows to be good, to find beautiful what he made beautiful, to become the beautiful, the free, the self-determining, self-constituting persons, acting from the heart, that he created us to be and his grace enables us to be.
Is this an ideal hopelessly beyond our abilities, impossible to achieve? We wouldn’t be the first people to find this section of the Sermon on the Mount an unrealistic ideal. It certainly is true that none of us will ever live up to this ideal perfectly. St. Augustine often reminded his people that Jesus taught us to pray for forgiveness every day because everyday we have sins that need to be forgiven. But that is not a reason to abandon the ideal and to dismiss today’s powerful Gospel from our minds. It is good to have something to strive for, something to prevent us from being content with what we are, from compromising with mediocrity, from being content with the merely external.
And there is the further point that, as St. Augustine also used to say, God has already begun this good work in us because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And don’t think this is just words. A great theologian, Bernard Lonergan, said that when he was a young Jesuit, his spiritual director asked him if he loved God. “I’d like to,” he replied. “If you’d like to, you do love him,” the priest replied. Why are you here at this Mass? Why do you come to listen to such Scriptures as today’s? Surely you’re not here just because there’s a commandment, or just out of habit! You’re adults, and here as adults, willingly, and that’s a sign that you, too, do love God. Did anything stir within you as you listened to the words of today’s Gospel? Did you at least think, “I’d like to live like that,” even if at that moment you also recognized how far short of Christ’s ideal you may be? If so, Christ’s words are not just outside you, forcing you in directions you really don’t want to go. No, his words have begun to resonate in your hearts; you have at least begun to love as God loves, which is what he wants. God wants our hearts, and he has already begun this good work in us. May he bring it to completion.