Feb 12, 2011

6th Sunday - "But I say to you . . ."

Jesus and the Law
Year A

Sirach 15: 15-20
1 Cor 2: 6-10
Mt 5: 17-37

As a Christian people, perhaps the greatest challenge we have is how to live in a society which promotes values, morals and choices which are contrary to what we believe. Here in the United States we live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society. Approximately, 27% of this nation is Roman Catholic so the Church is a powerful force – some feel too powerful. Choice comes for us in a variety of ways: entertainment, education, family planning, parishes to attend, the voting booth, which “cause du jour” to support, or what to do on a Sunday morning. Yet, the choices that confront us today in a real sense are nothing new. Since ancient times, Christians have found themselves immersed in societies that were either perceived as a threat, as outright hostile, as clearly pagan, or at best indifferent to people of faith.

The Book of Sirach in today’s first reading offers us a choice: “. . . fire and water . . . life and death, good and evil . . .” One may be tempted to ask, “Is there no middle ground? No gray area? Is everything just black and white – either/or? What about plan B?” But, this is fundamentally a choice to choose God or not. To choose to live by his way, his law, or not. To seek and know the will of God, however, is not always crystal clear.

In the Gospel today from Matthew 5, Jesus continues what may be the most confrontational words he delivered in this sermon on the mount. He does not confront out of defense – he challenges us with a deep insight into our fallen nature. He confronts our own pride and invites us to do the same. He states such precepts as: “Whoever is angry at his brother (sister) will be liable to judgement . . . everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart . . .if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. . .whoever divorces his wife, causes her to commit adultery . . .”

These statements are harsh on face value but faith means something. Sometimes, the Gospel cuts right to the gut of our lives. We would rather ignore what Jesus says here, minimize its seriousness or find some less painful middle ground. He couldn’t possibly mean to sound so harsh. His words about marriage, adultery, divorce have deep practical applications, not to mention the weight of morality. There is more that can and should be said to explain that teaching alone.

But the law of God is not a law which binds up and restricts. God’s law is meant to set us free – free to be who we are and free to be what God has made us to be; our best selves, our “higher angels” as Abraham Lincoln once stated. Jesus states today: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt. 5: 17).

He is not just teaching us what this most sacred law is about; just spewing forth requirements and dictates. Jesus shows us what the law means for our lives: “. . . unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. . .” (Mt 5: 20). To be “righteous” in the eyes of God is to obey – to fulfill this law within our own lives and to be right with God – to be in his grace. The law reminds us both what we are capable of: “anger, adultery, resentment, lust, duplicity, dishonesty”(Mt 5: 22 – 34).

But Jesus also shows us a way out – in essence how the law can be applied to our lives: forgive, reconcile, self-control, honesty, modesty. If we do not reflect upon the implications for our lives, what guide will we follow? Is there a better way? As a priest I well know that the pastoral applications of this teaching must be explained with sensitivity and compassion for where people are at in their spiritual life. But don’t we really want to know a better way to live? This is not just good advice or divine suggestion.

So, Jesus not only teaches us and interprets the “why” of God’s law. More convincingly, he becomes the primary example of a high moral life. Why would we want less for ourselves than to be more like Christ. Isn’t that what holiness means?

But, we may feel like we will never reach this goal that Christ sets before us. We all fall short. You and I both know that about ourselves. But Jesus is here to cheer us on; to stand by us and show us the way. In his divine mind he knows what fallen human nature is capable of and in his human nature he shared in our condition. Christ reminds us not only what the law states but then he offers, “But I say to you . . .” As the saying goes, Jesus may not stop the car wreck but he sits beside us waiting for the tow truck.

The Eucharist is given to us to be food for sinners. Food not for the self-righteous who feel they have no need for God but spiritual nourishment for those who know their weakness, seek reconciliation, and daily discern how they can live by God’s higher moral standard.