Jesus’ Higher Standards for Us, Sixth Sunday (A), February 17, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St.  Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
February 16, 2014
Sir 15:15-20, Ps 119, 1Cor 2:6-10, Mt 5:17-37

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

This was the text that guided the homily: 

Standards Higher than the Pagans’ and the Jews’

Last week we encountered, in the bulletin and at Mass, the first two parts of the Church’s six-part study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I mentioned last week that the main point of what Jesus is teaching us in this most famous of his sermons is that we, as his disciples, are called to live by a special set of standards, Christian standards, Jesus’ own standards. Jesus wants to live by a higher set of principles than the norms of the good pagans who love those who love them and do good to those who are good to them. The holiness to which he calls us, he tell us today, is supposed to be higher than the standards even of the most observant Jews. Unless our righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, he stresses, will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. So the stakes, in this life and the next, can’t be higher and what he’s going to tell us today can’t be more important.

Today Jesus sets out the first five of seven different ways that as his disciples our holiness is supposed to surpass others’. These are seven different ways that we’re called, like him, to “fulfill the law and the prophets.” These are 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 first five are, it’s important to contextualize the response the Lord is asking of us by examining what God teaches us in the other three readings today. They’re all like appetizers to get our appetites ready for the main course.

Freely Choosing God and His Path

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 cool, living water of our baptism. What Jesus is going to describe to us today is something that he puts to our freedom. If we seek heaven, if we seek to be with Jesus forever, then we’re going to freely embrace his words and choose to follow him down the path he indicates. The choice is ours and it’s the most important of our life.

Desiring God’s Ways

In the responsorial psalm today, we see two things. First, we behold how blessed is the one who walks in the law of the Lord, who observes what he says, who seek him with all his or her 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 who are willing to suffer on account of living the faith. Those who keep the beatitudes are the ones who walk in the law of the Lord, who walk in his ways and footsteps, and as Jesus says eight different times they are indeed 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 by praying for the strength to be firm in following his words, to observe what he says exactly and keep it with all our heart. Jesus wants to give us that help so that we will be firm in keeping his ways.

God’s wisdom and spiritual maturity

Finally, in the second reading, St. Paul talks about two types of wisdom. The first is the “wisdom of this age or the rulers of his 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 any time period, 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. It’s not an easy path. Just like growing up has its growing pains, the path of spiritual maturity is a Way of the Cross, but Jesus wants us to grow to full stature in him, if we receive and respond to his help and make that free choice to embrace and enflesh his wisdom.

That leads us to the Gospel, in which Jesus with great candor describes the standards of behavior that are meant to distinguish Christians from the best Jews and best pagans, where he fleshes out the path to spiritual maturity, wisdom and holiness. These five marks of Christian behavior — along with the two we’ll get next Sunday — go way beyond merely keeping the natural law or the Ten Commandments. They are meant to transform our heart and our whole life from the inside out. They challenge us not just to be “good” but genuinely “holy.” All five are really hard and we need to be candid about that from the beginning. At the same time, however, we need to remember that by calling us to these high standards, Jesus is showing us an exhilarating confidence that we, together with his help, can live up to them.

Loving Others like Jesus

The first standard Jesus teaches us today involves the whole way we treat others. He says that it’s not enough for us not to murder someone. We need to refrain not only from homicidal actions — most of us can handle that! —  but from the thoughts that set us on the path to maim and murder our brothers. Jesus 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 does throughout the Sermon on the Mount is to help us internalize the law of God, 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 from our heart and head outward. We don’t love others if all we do is not kill them. If we’re envious, jealous, uncomplimentary, or vengeful 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.

In his Angelus meditation on the Gospel this morning, Pope Francis said that today Jesus tells us that we can kill not only with knives and guns in our hands, but also with bullets and daggers from our tongue. “Jesus reminds us that words can also kill! … For that reason, it’s not enough not just to attempt to take the life of another, but even to give him the poison of anger or strike him down with slander or speak ill of him. Gossip can kill, because it kills the reputation of others!” He reminded everyone that if they wanted to enter the kingdom, if they desired to be saints, they needed to commit themselves not to kill anyone with their tongues or with their hearts. For the Lord, he calls us to the same commitment.

Reconciling Like Jesus

The second standard to which Jesus calls us 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. As I like to say, Jesus called us to be peacemakers, 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 others have something against us. If they do, he tells us that we need to make the first move and go to reconcile. As Christians, we forgive and we ask for forgiveness. We seek reconciliation with God and with others.

This is a standard 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 first move, even if we have been the one aggrieved, just like he made the first move in reconciling us when we had sinned against him. 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 get out of that court appearance. 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 true 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, and to reconcile — before we, they, or both of us end up in purgatory where we’ll have to expiate our lesser sins, or in the eternal self-imposed freely-chosen prison of hell for capital sins, where we’ll never be able to pay back every penny.

Jesus wants us to ponder today: Is there someone now I haven’t forgiven? If there someone whom I know has something against me for which I have not yet apologized and begged forgiveness? Now is the time for us to resolve to reconcile with that person. Rather than leaving Mass now, heading out into the snow and having everyone else wait until each person returns, Jesus wants us to make a commitment to move to reconcile as soon as possible after Mass. Otherwise our worship today, our offering of yourself to God, won’t be pleasing to him.

Purity of Heart like Jesus

The third standard to which Jesus calls us is truly to be pure of heart, something he emphasized at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in the Beatitudes, so central is purity to Christ’s way of life. Jesus said that it is not enough for us not to commit adultery in the flesh. We need to avoid the thoughts that lead to adultery. He tells us, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus wants to keep marriage loving, not lustful, and that’s why he warns even spouses that they can be adulterers with each other if they allow lust for each other to invade their hearts.

But this standard of purity applies to everyone. Boys or men who use pornography become serial adulterers in their heart: those who visit certain porn sites on the web can commit adultery in their heart with hundreds or even thousands of women on a given night. Girls or women who lustfully fantasize, who indulge in books like Fifty Shades of Gray and other works of the genre, likewise commit adultery, in their heart.

Why’s Jesus so strong in preaching against lust? Blessed Pope John Paul II taught that it is because 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, saying “this is my body, given out of love for you.” Lust changes us, however, from a giver to a taker, from a protector to a predator, from someone who sacrifices his own desires for another’s good to someone who consumes another for his or her own gratification.

Jesus’ teaching about purity versus adultery of the heart is very challenging in our sex-crazed world, in which so much of our culture not only promotes but glorifies lust — from soap operas, to many commercials, to reality shows, to video games glorifying a hookup culture like Grand Theft Auto V, to movies that somehow always feature nudity or fornication, to outright porn. It is tough to remain chaste and pure of heart. But that is the standard to which Jesus calls us today, tomorrow and every day, and does so emphatically. Those who are pure of heart alone are blessed, Jesus teaches, because it’s they alone who are free to love. The one who is enslaved by lust becomes a selfish taker, tortured by concupiscent 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 other types of murder, as we see in the story of how King David’s lust for Bathsheba led him to get her husband Uriah killed, a tragedy recounted almost every day with different names in the pages of newspapers.

And Jesus calls us to be brutal in eliminating lust from our eyes, our minds, our hearts and our life, telling us to “cut off our hand,” for example, if it’s leading to sexual sins with ourselves or others, or “pluck out our eye” if it’s viewing others as objects rather than as temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us not to negotiate with impurity of heart but to be brutal in eliminating it from our hearts. With prayer, with self-discipline, with the sacrament of confession, with grace, and with acts of true charity toward others, Jesus wants us to battle. He’ll help us but he wants us to recognize he’s calling us to holiness, not to imitate Hugh Hefner.

Faithful in Marriage Like Jesus

If that teaching is challenging, the next standard, featuring Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage, is even more so. On Friday, as we celebrated St. Valentine’s day, we had a chance to focus on the blessing of marriage, to pray for married couples and to ponder what marriage is and how it is meant to be strengthened. Pope Francis did so beautifully with 10,000 engaged couples in St. Peter’s Square. Today Jesus reminds us that his expectations for the way we approach the beautiful gift of marriage are different from the way everyone else does, because his standards are the only ones that are to true to how he designed marriage in the beginning.

In talking about the indissolubility of marriage and the faithfulness we’re called to have to our spouse until death, Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife 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, not even all the family court judges in the world can divide. We may tragically need, for legal reasons, to seek a divorce, to protect ourselves or our children from an abusive spouse or one who is behaving in such a way, like foolishly wasting joint resources, that the future of children is put at risk, or for some other truly serious reason. 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 at all, because in the eyes of God that person is still married and ineligible to marry another. When those in so-called “second” marriages seek to live as husband and wife rather than brother and sister, Jesus says today, they are committing adultery, because they’re not remaining faithful to the one-flesh union God has established.

God wants to help every couple remain faithful to this covenant with each other and with God in poverty or prosperity, in sickness and health, in good times and in worse times, all the days of their life, but both spouses need freely to cooperate in accordance with their commitment to God and to each other, to live according to the truth about marriage. It’s easy for us to try to dismiss Jesus’ standards and live by Liz Taylor’s. Many Christians have, including, lamentably, Orthodox and Protestant churches. Only the Catholic Church has remained faithful to Jesus’ words, which is one of the Church’s true glories, that we have remained faithful to Jesus about marriage so that Christian marriages can be a sacrament of Christ’s love for the Church, and no matter how unfaithful we’ve been to him, he has remained faithful to us.

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, abandoned them and remarried. They deserve our respect, our support and especially our prayers. It’s hard in our culture for someone in this circumstance to feel support, because so many just say, “No big deal! Just start dating someone else! Everyone else is doing it.” But even if everyone else is doing it, it’s still not right. It’s also hard because of the natural loneliness that can set in and the other stresses of trying to raise a family as a single parent. But Jesus will help all those in this situation to live by his teachings, for fidelity to him and others, even when others are unfaithful to us, are the path to true blessedness. Today we pray for those in this circumstance in a special way.

Second, I know Jesus’ 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 open yourself up in faith to the help God wants to give you courageously and faithfully to investigate whether your first marriage was valid through a petition to examine in the Church 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 in fact didn’t join you in one flesh for the rest of your life, despite your saying your vows out loud in Church in front of a crowd or your conceiving children together. You might in God’s eyes actually be free to marry the person with whom you are now living in a civil marriage in a valid sacramental wedding. But please step forward to begin the annulment process!

Truthful Like Jesus

The final standard Jesus 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 feel justified not telling the truth. Jesus says that everything other than total sincerity and honesty is from the devil, who is the father of lies, and wants to lead us from small lies, to bigger lies, until our whole life is a lie. 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! Jesus calls us to this standard of full-time truthfulness and transparency.

The Help Jesus Gives

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 by turning the other cheek and how we’re to love even our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Like the five we’ve heard today, these sixth and seventh standards of the truly Christian life are even more challenging than what we’ve heard today and obviously will set us apart from virtuous pagans and righteous Jews.

Jesus came to fulfill the law of God, calls us to fulfill it rather than try to change it or water it down, and will give us his help to live it. He 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. But he also promised to be with us always, with his mercy and grace, every step along this path. The greatest help of all is himself, the Word-made-flesh, with which he feeds us at Mass. Just as it’s not enough for us merely not to commit sins in the flesh like murder or adultery, but we 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 chose to come inside, so that from the inside he can help us adopt his thoughts, his heart, his desire, and his will so that deeds of true Christian love can flow from our interior bond with him. That is what he does here in Holy Communion. Let us therefore turn to him and ask to purify our thoughts, our eyes, our hearts, our relationships with family members and others, our marriages, and our speech, so that together with our reconciled Christian brothers and sisters, we may live by his Christians standards and come to see what eye has not seen, ear has not heard, or the human heart even imagined, the full blessedness he has in store, in this life and in the next, for those who freely choose to live by his wisdom and walk in his holy ways.

 

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 Psalm
PS 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 2
1 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.

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.”