Jesus’ Higher Standard, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), February 13, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry

St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

February 13, 2011

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

 

JESUS’ HIGHER STANDARDS FOR US

  • We’re now three weeks into our renewed study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which the Church has broken down into six parts for us to examine together. I’ve been mentioning over the last two weeks that the main point of what Jesus is teaching us in the Sermon in the Mount is that we, as his disciples, are called to live by his standard, not just by the standards of the good pagans, who love those who love them and do good to those who are good to them;, not even by the standards of good Jews, as Jesus makes clear to us today. Unless our righteousness, our holiness, surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees — who were basically the most religiously attentive of Jews — we will not enter into the kingdom of heaven, we will not live in Jesus’ kingdom either on earth or later.
  • Today Jesus sets out the first five of seven different ways that as his disciples our holiness is supposed to surpass the others; seven different ways that we’re called, like him, to fulfill the law and the prophets;  seven different ways we are called to be great in his kingdom by acting on these principles and teaching others to do the same.
  • Before we examine what those five are — and they are challenging, some very challenging — I think it would be important to put the response the Lord is asking of us into context by examining what God teaches us in the other three readings today.
    • In today’s first reading, Sirach tells us, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments. To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand to whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” In other words, God has made us free, free to accept his wisdom or free to reject it, free to choose to burn in fire, or free to live according to the living water of our baptism. What Jesus is going to describe to us today is something that’s not optional for us. If we seek heaven, if we seek to be with Jesus forever, we’re going to act on his words with his help. The choice is ours.
    • In the responsorial psalm today, we see two things. First, how blessed is the one who walks in the law of the Lord, who observes what he says, who seeks him with all their heart. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount reminding us of the blessings for those who are poor in spirit, pure of heart, meek, merciful and peacemaking, who mourn, hunger and thirst for holiness, and are willing to suffer on account of living the faith. These are the ones who walk in the law of the Lord, who walk in his ways and footsteps, and yes they are blessed. But we also see that before one walks in the law of the Lord, one must desire to do so. That’s why the psalmist prays, “Oh, that I might be firm in the ways of keeping your statutes! Be good to your servant, that I may live and keep your words. Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law. … Give me discernment so that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.” Before we get into the truths to which Jesus will open our eyes in the Gospel today, we begin praying for the strength to be firm in following his words, to observe what he says exactly and keep it with all our heart.
    • And in the second reading, St. Paul talks about two types of wisdom. The first is the “wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age who are doomed to perish.” The other is the wisdom of the “mature,” those who learn and speak “God’s wisdom,” which is “secret and hidden” to the so-called clever of this age, but will lead us to “what no eye has seen, no ear heard, nor any human heart conceived,” what “God has revealed to us,” those of us who “love him.” We’re called to seek to love the Lord, to seek that wisdom, to learn it, to speak it and to live it. This is the path to true spiritual maturity.
  • Now we turn to what Jesus himself in his wisdom reveals to us today about five ways our holiness is supposed to be different from all the rest. He describes for us the way we are to walk, the choices we are called to make if we are going to be numbered among those who are blessed for following the ways of the Lord.
    • The first thing Jesus teaches us today is that it’s not enough for us not to murder someone. We need not only to refrain from murderous actions but from the thoughts that lead to murder. He tells us, “But I say to you, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” What Jesus did in the law was internalize it, to focus not just on our deeds, but our thoughts, not just on good fruit but on ensuring that we’re a good tree. Here he says that we are not to harbor any hatred within, no lasting anger, no insults, no thoughts of superiority or denigration toward others. We are called, in short, to love others. We don’t love others if all we do is not kill them. If we’re envious, jealous, uncomplimentary, etc., within, we’re still not loving them. Jesus calls us to examine who we are on the inside and make sure that we are in fact meek and merciful, even toward those who may be evil to us.
    • The second thing he calls us to is to make the first move in reconciling ourselves with those from whom we have been alienated either by our sins or their sins. He tells us, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus is saying to us that it’s not enough for us to be merely “good with God,” to sacrifice for God, to love God. We have to be “good with others,” to sacrifice for them, to love them. People offered sacrifices to God most often in expiation for their sins, and Jesus was saying that before this sin offering would be acceptable to God, they first needed to make peace with others. Jesus called us to be peace-makers, not just peace-wishers, and he meant it. He said on three separate occasions that our heavenly Father will not forgive us unless we in turn forgive others. That’s why, when we come to renew our self-offering to God and ask for his forgiveness, we must examine first if others have something against us. If they do, he tells us that we need to make the first move and go to reconcile. This is a teaching most of us would prefer to ignore. If we’re in a dispute with someone else, especially a member of our family, most of us, because of pride, anger and a sense of self-righteousness, want to wait until the other “comes to his or her senses,” and comes back groveling to beg our forgiveness. That is not Jesus’ way. He wants us to make that move, even if we have been the one aggrieved. Like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he wants us to run out to reconcile. Only then are we fit for the feast. And Jesus tells us that this is not something optional for us or of small stakes. With a powerful analogy, he says, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” All of us are, in a sense, going to meet the judge at the end of our lives. It’s inevitable. There’s no way to avoid it. On that day, all will be open and apparent, and there will be no time to make amends. We will be held accountable for all our sins, including those against real love of neighbor. That’s why Jesus tells us that while we and they are on the journey of life heading toward our judgment, the time is now to settle, to ask for forgiveness, to give forgiveness, to reconcile, before we, they, or both of us are put in purgatory where we’ll have to expiate our lesser sins, or in the eternal prison of hell for capital sins, where we’ll never be able to pay back every penny. Is there someone now you haven’t forgiven? If there is someone whom you know has something against you for which you have not yet apologized and begged forgiveness, now is the time for you to resolve to reconcile with that person. Rather than leaving Mass now and having us wait until you return, you need to make a commitment to make the move to reconcile as soon as possible after Mass. Otherwise your worship today, your offering of yourself to God, won’t be pleasing to him.
    • The third thing Jesus calls us to is truly to be pure of heart, as he mentioned in the beatitudes. He said that it was not enough for us not to commit adultery in the flesh. We needed to avoid the thoughts that lead to adultery. He taught, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” By this criteria, spouses can commit adultery with each other in the heart by lusting after each other, even if they by their one-flesh union in marriage couldn’t commit adultery with each other in the flesh. But this applies to everyone of us. Boys or men who use pornography commit adultery through lusting. Those who visit certain porn sites on the computer can commit adultery in their heart with hundreds if not thousands of women on a given day. Girls or women who lustfully fantasize about sex commit adultery, which is just as injurious to the soul as committing adultery in the flesh. Jesus calls us to purity of heart, not to lust. Pope John Paul II taught that lust changes the entire intentionality of a human person. What he meant is that we’ve been created in the image and likeness of God who is love and are called to love others as Christ has loved us. Loving others means sacrificing ourselves for them, giving of ourselves for them. Lust changes us, however, from a giver to a taker, from someone who sacrifices his own desires for another’s good, to someone who consumes another for his or her own gratification. This is a very challenging teaching in our sex-crazed world, in which so many of our programs on television not only promote but glorify lust. From soap operas, to many commercials, to programs like Sex and the City, to new MTV programs like Skins, to movies that somehow always feature nakedness or sex by those who are not married, through outright soft and hardcore porn. It is tough to remain chaste and pure of heart. But that is what Jesus calls us to today, in very clear words. Those who are pure of heart alone are blessed, because it’s they who are free to love. The one who is enslaved by lust becomes a selfish taker, tortured by lustful thoughts and desires that eventually lead, as they always do, to evils that destroy those whom they love, to adultery in the flesh, to various venereal diseases, to the sins of abortion, and even to murder, as we see in the story of how King David’s lust for Bathsheba led him to get her husband Uriah killed.  In terms of lust, Jesus calls us to be brutal in eliminating it from our life, “cutting off our hand,” for example, if it’s leading to sexual sins with ourselves or others, tearing out our eye if it’s viewing others as objects rather than as temples of the Holy Spirit. There’s no room for compromise. With prayer, with self-discipline, with the sacrament of confession, with grace, and with acts of true charity toward others, we’re called to battle here. Jesus will help us.
    •  Next, and perhaps most challenging for our culture as a whole, is Jesus’s clear words on divorce and remarriage. We are celebrating today World Marriage Sunday, the annual time in which, led by the World Wide Marriage Encounter Movement, and on the cusp of St. Valentine’s day, we focus on the blessing of marriage, we pray for married couples and we focus on what marriage is and how it is meant to be strengthened. Jesus today takes up one of the greatest beauties of marriage as well as one of the greatest challenges: the indissolubility of marriage and the faithfulness we’re called to have to our spouse until death. “Anyone who divorces his wife,” Jesus says, causes her to commit adultery; whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Later on in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus explains why, because in marriage God joins a man and a woman for the rest of their life in one flesh, and what he has joined, man can’t divide. We may need, for legal reasons, to seek a divorce, to protect ourselves or our children from an abusive husband or a wife who is putting the future of the kids at risk by stealing the money and using it on herself, or for various other reasons. But that civil action of divorce doesn’t break the one-flesh union created by God, which lasts until death. That’s why to marry someone who is divorced but whose spouse is still alive is no different in the eyes of God to marrying someone who is not divorced, because in the eyes of God that person is still married. When those in this so-called “second” marriage seek to live as husband and wife, they are committing adultery. These are Jesus’ words and Jesus calls us to this standard. It’s at the point now that basically everyone else has looked the other way on divorce and remarriage, including  Orthodox and Protestant churches. Only the Catholic Church has remained faithful to Jesus’ words. These words are challenging, especially for those who have been abandoned by their spouses or abused. But Jesus will help us to live by them, for they are the path to true blessedness. I’d like to say two things here. First, we should be grateful for the heroic witness of those who have remained faithful to their spouses even after their spouses have been unfaithful to them, abandoning them, remarrying, and living in a situation of sin. They deserve our respect and our support. Second, I know this teaching is very challenging to those who are already in second marriages while the first spouse is still alive. What I encourage you to do, please, is to have the courage and the faith to investigate whether your first marriage was valid through a petition to examine the possible nullity of that first marriage. It’s conceivable that one of the reasons why your first marriage disintegrated was because one of the elements necessary for marriage was absent, that God didn’t join you, despite your saying your vows out loud, and that you would in God’s eyes actually be free to marry the person with whom you are now living in a civil marriage in a sacramental wedding.
    • The fifth difference he mentions today is about our truthfulness. He tells us that we’re not to take oaths, because we should be so transparently truthful that we have no need to take oath. Rather than people who have to say, “I swear to God,” “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” in order to be believed, Jesus wants our “yes” to be “yes” and our “no” to be “no.” We live in the midst of a culture that lies all the time, of politicians or press spokesmen who spin rather than tell the truth, of others who say what they think others want to hear but who don’t keep their word or their promises, of all types of people who basically cross their fingers behind their back and don’t tell the truth. Jesus, who is the truth incarnate, wants us to be distinguished as people who never tell lies, whose word is immediately believed because we would rather die than lie. How important is this in our culture, a people who take seriously the eighth commandment and live it!
  • We will take up in next week’s Gospel the two other things Jesus says that are meant to distinguish us from others and help us to live the beatitudes:  how we’re supposed to offer no resistance to one who is evil and turn the other cheek and how we’re to love even our enemies and pray for our persecutors. These sixth and seventh paths of Christian life are even more challenging than what we’ve heard today.
  • Jesus never told us that the Christian life would be easy. He in fact told us that to be his follower, we would need to pick up our Cross each day and follow him along the path of self-giving love which for him culminated in the Upper Room and on the Cross as he gave his body, his blood, his life out of love for us. He promised us, however, that even if it is hard, that he would give us all the help we need to follow him along that path. The greatest help of all is himself, the Word-made-flesh, with which he feeds us at Mass.  As Jesus says it’s not enough for us merely not to commit sins in the flesh like murder or adultery, but we also have to focus on our hateful or lustful thoughts, so Jesus, in order to redeem all of us, didn’t want to remain outside of us, but to come inside, so that from the inside he can help us put on his thoughts, his heart, his desire, his will so that deeds of true Christian love can flow. That is what he does here in holy communion. Let us ask him today to purify our thoughts, our eyes, our hearts, our relationships with family members and others, our marriages, so that together with others, we may live by his standards and come to experience the full blessedness he has in store, in this life and in the next, for those who walk in his ways. It is our free choice to act on his wisdom today, freely to choose to keep his word. May he strengthen us to do just that! Amen!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 SIR 15:15-20

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.

Responsorial PsalmPS 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34

R. (1b) Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Be good to your servant, that I may live
and keep your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Instruct me, O LORD, in the way of your statutes,
that I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.
R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

Reading 21 COR 2:6-10

Brothers and sisters:
We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
and which none of the rulers of this age knew;
for, if they had known it,
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But as it is written:
What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him, 

this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.

For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

AlleluiaCF. MT 11:25

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth;
you have revealed to little ones the mysteries of the kingdom.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MT 5:17-37

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
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 and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said,
Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.
But I say to you,
whoever divorces his wife –  unless the marriage is unlawful –
causes her to commit adultery,
and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath,
but make good to the Lord all that you vow.

But I say to you, do not swear at all;
not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the evil one.”