Feb 11, 2017

6th Sunday: "Stay on the mark"

"I have come not to abolish but to fulfill"

Sirach 15:15-20
       1 Corinthians 2:6-10
 Matthew 5:17-37

The easiest explanation of sin that I think I’ve heard is to define sin as “missing the mark.” It’s an example I’ve used in teaching children and parents of children preparing for their first Eucharist but also in many other applications.   

What we are saying is that God has provided for us a reference point on which to stand in order to live his law of love.  He essentially is saying that if we stay on this point, this mark, and within its boundaries, we will have a life of harmony with one another and with him. 

However, like Adam and Eve, we often wonder what’s “out there.”  Why should I not eat this fruit even though I have plenty to eat from elsewhere? Let me go and find out.  Well, the rest is human history as we say and it all indicates why God wants us to stay on the mark he has set for us. 

Our readings this Sunday on one level seem harsh.  Sirach speaks of God who “has set before you fire and water . . . life and death, good and evil . . .” Then Jesus in what is likely the toughest part of the New Testament uses some strong imagery as he minces no words: “whoever is angry at his brother will be liable to judgment . . . settle with your opponent quickly . . . thrown into prison . whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart . . .”  Then the clincher: “If you right eye causes you to sin, tear it out . . . if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off . . .”

Leaving no stone untouched, he turns to the marriage covenant: “whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery . . .” Finally, “let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more is from the evil one.” 

Where do we go with this?  In light of today’s more tolerant and permissive culture we may find these words way off the “mark.”  Surely God is not so strict, demanding, unbending and judgmental.  Or so it seems on the surface of things.  However, we must see this great wisdom of Christ as coming from a perspective of love and mercy; of how we are to live in harmony with one another and with God. 

That harmony is marked by God’s law which is inside the circle of the mark he has set for us.  Notice here Jesus consistently speaks: “You have heard that it was said” and follows with “But I say to you . . .” You have heard and followed the law of God given to Moses and passed on to his people.  Now I come to fulfill, to flesh out that law and apply it to social relationships.  Yet, it is not a black and white application for we, because of Adam and Eve’s original choice, must work to achieve this level of goodness and perfection that staying on the mark provides for us. Yet, we know the danger of rigidity and the sad result of being too lax.  

Human weakness being what it is, Jesus counsels us about the danger of straying too far away from the center. Most of us live in the gray area of life and Jesus was well aware of that.  We know the ideal but live in the real.  The everyday distractions and challenges work very hard to lure us away from the mark and towards what may seem easier or more attractive at the moment.

But the wisdom with which Jesus teaches in our Gospel, as harsh as the imagery may seem, is good for us to know just how far we could go without his invitation to holiness and the gift of knowing what will bring us live in harmony with God and our neighbor.  That sin is a reality and leads to brokenness and a death of the spirit.  

Marriage means something for example and Jesus talk today of adultery and divorce is meant to remind us that fidelity in the marriage covenant is the better choice.  Aside from physical and moral danger, which clearly indicates that one of the spouses is deficient in their consent of marriage, it is better to live in mutual love and respect. I know of two couples in my parish both married 71 years! Yes, to the same person.  It is right and good.  

Living in peace with our brother and sister, to seek forgiveness and to reconcile differences is the meaning of God’s commandment to not kill.  For we can kill the reputation of another, we can kill the friendship we enjoy with another, we can bring great scandal to another.  Make peace first that you offered gift is truly sincere. 

Jesus has raised the moral bar high not to make it difficult but to show us the way to freedom.  All these come down to Jesus’ own summary of the law:  Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.  If we can do that, if when we stray away from the mark and come back, and not be content with mediocrity, then we can be wise disciples of the Lord.  As Sirach reminds us today:
“If you choose you can keep the commandment, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live . . .”

In the Eucharist this weekend, before you offer your "gift," make peace with anyone you may feel estranged from for any reason.  If you cannot contact them personally, then make a vow to do so as soon as possible.  Pray for them during Mass this weekend.  Then your gift at Mass will indeed be a choice for water and life.  

O God, who teach us that you abide
in hearts that are just and true, 
grant that we may be so fashioned by your grace
as to become a dwelling pleasing to you. 
through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son, 
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Opening Collect of Mass)