Sixth Sunday of the Year – February 11, 1972 – CNR
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” This sentence is a sort of sub-title for the Sermon on the Mount. It indicates the central meaning of Jesus’ moral demand, and the final purpose of Christian moral effort.
“Righteousness” is not a word we use often. In the Bible, it refers especially to the right-standing of man, that is, one’s being what one should be before God and man. It is not so terribly distant from modern terms such as authenticity or integrity of character. But, how is this “right-standing” determined or measured? Normally it is determined by reference to some moral code or ideal, and that is what Jesus is about in the Sermon on the Mount. He begins by insisting that his is a greater demand, a surpassing righteousness, which he immediately illustrates in the series of contrasts he draws between an earlier demand (“You have heard that it was said…”) and the one he makes now (“But I say to you…”). The whole theme suggests some reflections on the nature and purpose of Christian morality.
The first thing one may note is that Christian morality does make an extraordinary demand, seeks a surpassing righteousness. It is an ethic admired even by non-believers, respected–from afar–even by us sinners. So exalted is the moral ideal taught and lived by Jesus that more than one Christian theologian has believed it beyond human ability, its purpose even to keep man constantly aware of his sinfulness and need of forgiveness.
There is some truth in that observation, but it needs to be balanced by the fact that the extraordinary demand is made in the context of the extraordinary favor of God. In Matthew’s Gospel this is reflected in the accounts of the miracles of Jesus recorded just before the Sermon on the Mount begins. But it is the sense of the whole New Testament: a surpassing demand is made (“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and mind and strength”) because a surpassing love has already been shown to man and because a surpassing love has flooded our hearts through the Holy Spirit God has given. God would not demand the “impossible” had not the “impossible” been the measure of his gift to us.
And that means that Christian moral effort is not our initiative, but our response. It does not prepare and begin our relation to God, it follows upon his initiating favor, it is prompted by it, challenged by it, measured by it. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “I forgave your immense debt; should you not show a similar mercy?” Our Christian moral concern, then, is not the anxious effort to set ourselves right before God, but rather the struggle to be worthy of and faithful to a love we could not expect and certainly could not earn.
Finally, if our Christian moral effort begins as distant respect for a law from without, its final goal is freedom. Its character is not negative, merely refraining from murder or adultery or perjury. It seeks rather that stage in which one’s heart is so single-minded that one is not even angry with his brother, does not even look with lust, has no need of an oath to compel one’s honesty. At such a stage, one is beyond the Law, even Jesus’ New Law, because the good the Law commands is the deepest desire of one’s own heart. Such freedom is final and full–surpassing–righteousness. It doubtless lies still ahead of us all. And so it is good for us to have the challenge of the revelation in Jesus Christ of what Newman called “the perfect Christian state” in which “our duty and our pleasure are the same, when what is right and true is natural to us, and in which God’s ‘service is perfect freedom.'” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, IV, p. 4)
6TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – FEBRUARY 11, 1996 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The wisdom Paul preached, he said, is “not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age;” it is “God’s wisdom, a mysterious, a hidden wisdom.” Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between God’s wisdom and the wisdom of those who prevail in this age greater than in the Gospel reading we have just heard, where Jesus outlines the greater holiness he requires of his disciples.
Three antitheses are set out, to be followed by the two we shall hear next week. In each case a traditional teaching, based on the Mosaic law and elaborated in rabbinic tradition, is set out in the formula: “You have heard that it was said of old.” And in each case follows the dramatic introduction of Jesus’s words: “But I say to you…” The claim to authority in that phrase is breath-taking: Jesus sets himself up as one with authority to interpret the law of God.
In each case, there is a deepening of the moral claim on us. It is not enough to refrain from murder: we must refrain even from anger. It is not enough to refrain from adultery: we must refrain even from lust. It is not enough to refrain from lying when under oath: we must always say Yes when we mean Yes and No when we mean No. A dramatic intensification of what Christian discipleship must mean: God does not want from us the merely external fulfilment of commandments, perhaps mainly out of fear of consequences. He wants our hearts; he wants us.
Why he wants our hearts is perhaps clearest in the case of adultery. What marriage would be considered in good health if either spouse refrained from infidelity only out of fear of discovery or of punishment? Spouses expect love from one another, and love’s fidelity is not half-hearted or reluctant. Something similar holds in the other examples Jesus adduces. To refrain from murder is a minimum of civil behavior; what is needed for the redemption of society is an unstinting love. To refrain from perjury is a bare minimum; a healthy human society requires honesty and plain-talking.
These words would be bold in any context, but they are particularly striking in our society today, where those who rule the culture often glorify violence and promote irresponsible sexuality, as on television and in the movies, and where “spin-doctors” engage in artful manipulation of truth, as we are sure to see during an election-year. There is a prevailing wisdom of this age, and there is the wisdom of God in Christ.
The words of the Gospel are addressed to us, Christ’s Church. They will leave very few of us unaffected, since few of us can claim that anger or lust or deceit is utterly absent from our hearts, never mind the grosser sins forbidden even by what “was said of old.” Before such an exigent demand we can all and each recognize our need of the forgiveness for which we prayed at the beginning of this Mass. This is a beginning–a great beginning: to be willing to be measured by these exigent, heart-reaching, demands is already to have begun to move in the direction of the depths of commitment which alone can correspond to the depths of love that have been shown to us by God. For that is the point, the God who has so loved us that he did not spare his own Son wants back from us an echo–he wants ourselves, he wants our love. And love is not angry at a brother; love does not betray the beloved; love does not lie.
It has always struck me as odd that Christ should have made love a commandment: how can you command someone to love? You either love or you don’t. You can’t suddenly make someone else love, you can’t even make yourself love. The key to an answer, I think, lies in the Gospel promises: God does not require of us what he does not enable us to do. And the great Gospel truth is that God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given us.
A teacher of mine once said that he was helped enormously when, as a young Jesuit, he was asked by his spiritual director: “Do you love God?” “I want to,” he replied. “Well if you want to,” the director said, “you already do love God.” I suppose I want to say something similar to you today: If there is anything in you that replies with sympathy and longing to these high demands of Jesus today, then you already have begun to love as Jesus expects you to love, and you have only to keep these demands before you, as arrows pointing in the direction that love would take, and you will make progress towards the purity of heart, intention and love that is the greater holiness that Jesus asks from you and from me.
SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – FEBRUARY 14, 1999 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
This is not your ordinary Gospel. It is not possible to listen to it without becoming uneasy. If we might be tempted to feel a certain peace of conscience when we review the ten commandments and can say, honestly, that we have not killed or committed adultery or borne false witness, we begin to squirm when told that this is not enough: that we must not even get angry or curse another, must not have lust in our hearts, must not lie at any time. Where else do we find so clear an expression of what Paul calls our wisdom, so manifest an indication that it runs counter to the wisdom of this age and of the forces that rule this age? Jimmy Carter was ridiculed when he admitted that he fell short of this prohibition of lust, and recent events suggest that lying, even under oath, is widely considered somewhat less serious than Jesus considered it.
That gap between the surpassing righteousness Jesus calls for and what is honored and promoted in the world is nothing new, of course. Christian history is filled with efforts to get around these words of Jesus. For some they represent an eschatological ethic, appropriate in a time of great tension, but not realistic in the ordinary world governed by compromise and content with lesser accomplishments. For others, they are deliberately exaggerated, in order to keep us humble, ever conscious of our enduring sinfulness. For others they are meant only for those seeking perfection, while the rest of us can be satisfied if we meet the less demanding requirements of the commandments.
And yet, after all is said and not done, the words remain, sharp and stark on the page, hard to hear, one of the points at which what the Epistle to the Hebrews says about the word of God is experienced as true: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hb 4:12). The thoughts and intentions of the heart: that is what is uncovered by these words. Jesus wants our hearts. He is not content with merely external actions. It is not enough that we can say we have not killed or injured, that we have not committed adultery, that we have not lied under oath. He wants our hearts, and their thoughts, and their intentions.
If we think about it, it is also what we want in our own relationships. Friendships are not defined negatively—by refraining from doing one another harm–but positively–by affection and self-forgetting and a will to reconciliation. Marriages are not defined negatively–what spouse would be content with a reluctantly faithful partner?–but positively–by the trust generated by mutual self-giving. Societies, civil and business, cannot function simply on the prohibition of perjury; they require that we can trust that when people say Yes they mean Yes, mean No when they say No. All of those dimensions of our ordinary lives–friendships, marriages, other relationships–are in danger of corruption if what Jesus here says is not the criterion of our thoughts and intentions.
If we had only these words of Jesus, we might think that he demands what has even been called an “impossible ethic.” But before we resign ourselves to it, we might recall two things. The first is that these words come after the announcement of the extraordinary blessings we heard two weeks ago in the Beatitudes, the announcement of the extraordinary gift of God which the Gospel announces. Jesus’ first word is not “Repent,” but, “The kingdom of God is near.” The reign of grace is his first word to us, and it is only within the conviction of the extraordinary gift that God has given to us in Christ that the extraordinary demand he places on us can be heard and accepted, at least as the high criterion by which we will accept to be judged. Gratitude should be the inspiring motivation of a serious Christian life.
And, secondly, there is the comfort that, as St. Augustine once said, God does not demand what he does not enable us to perform. Even the words of Jesus stand outside us–are external to us–but God’s work is not only external. He also works on and in our hearts. That is where the essence of the new law is imprinted, on our hearts, not on ancient tablets, not on the pages of the Bible, but on our hearts. It is imprinted there when we begin to love, when we begin to love what we had not loved before, when we begin to love more deeply, more consistently, more widely than we had loved before. The kinds of things Jesus asks of us today are not strange to love, nor difficult to those who love. Watch what people do who love, with what spontaneity and self-forgetfulness parents act for the sake of their children and children for their parents and husbands for wives and wives for husbands. They see things that need doing which those who don’t love don’t see, and they undertake to do them naturally, unself-consciously, freely. They are like the father in the parable of the prodigal son: Love sends him running to meet a returning sinner and to celebrate his return, while the older son, who does not love as his father does, sulks resentfully outside.
The demands we have heard today are only explications of what love requires; they merely specify the great commandment of the new covenant: “Love as I have loved you.” It is strange to be commanded to love. Can one choose to love? Can one change the thought and intentions of the heart as easily as one changes external actions? It does not seem so. But if we have ever had the experience of loving a person or thing that we had not loved before, then we have had the experience of this kind of change, and this can give us some kind of hopeful assurance that further change is possible, that God can give us what we cannot, that deeper, wider love is possible even to us, that words like those of Jesus today need not always seem alien, external to us, that they might one day be experienced as the marrow-deep truth of the thoughts and intentions of our own hearts.