6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matt 5: 17-37
1 Cor 2: 6-10
Feb. 16, 2014
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets’” (Matt 5: 17).
Starting last Sunday, we’re hearing for several weeks Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. What we hear today is how demanding Jesus’ teaching is. It reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
St. Paul hints at this challenge too. In our 2d reading, he contrasts the “wisdom of this age” (1 Cor 2:6)—which means the wisdom of the world, of society, of our general culture—with “God’s wisdom … which none of the rulers of this age knew” (2:7-8). He reminds his friends in Corinth that Jesus was crucified by the powers of the world. The world and what it values are no friends of Jesus Christ or of his disciples.
By “the world,” of course, we do not mean creation in itself or human beings in themselves, but human nature and human institutions infected by sin. You know very well what that world values: power, money, fame, pleasure. Those qualities are what make you important in the eyes of the world: in politics, business, academia, entertainment, the media, the Twitterverse.
What does Jesus value? “Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). As an example, Jesus speaks of killing and anger, and of reconciliation as a prerequisite for worship—which is why we have a sign of peace at Mass. It’s not a social moment to say, “Hi! How are ya? Doesn’t this weather stink?” but a deeply symbolic, almost sacramental, moment of our forgiveness of everyone who has hurt us, of our wishing everyone to be at peace with God.
Christ’s teaching challenges our public policy as well as our private or personal attitudes, words, and actions. “Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (5:22)—what are the implications of that for criminal justice, for instance? Does our penal system aim only at punishment, or also at rehabilitation? When we scream, “Lock him up and throw away the key!” is our intention to safeguard society or to get even with someone we hate? Where capital punishment is legal or is advocated for, is the motive the legitimate protection of society, or vengeance?
Jesus tells us that we can commit sin in our hearts (5:28). (So do the 9th and 10th Commandments, by the way.) Today’s gospel refers specifically to lust and adultery, but elsewhere both Jesus and the Bible in general warn us also about excessive attachment to material goods and to our own self-image, our pride. Our society has little use for self-restraint; it’s all for excess (except of body fat). Our society embraces the mottos “Grab all the gusto you can” and “If it feels good, do it,” more than it observes the Golden Rule. Our society is blind to how pornography destroys marriages and families; blind to the impact of single parenthood on our children’s education, nutrition, and poverty, and to their future employment prospects, gang activity, and crime. How have we come to the point where a major focus of the Super Bowl would be the sex trafficking of minors around the game?
If we want a better society, we have to start with our hearts: with our thoughts, desires, and attitudes—not only with regard to lust but also with regard to anger, avarice, envy, gluttony, pride, and sloth, all 7 of the capital sins. For, as the proverb says, “The thought is father to the man.” Or, as Jesus says, from the heart come evil actions: murder, theft, deceit, adultery, fornication, arrogance (Mark 7:21-22).
Jesus speaks further about adultery, moving from lust in the heart to actions: whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. That’s certainly an unpopular teaching; many wish the Catholic Church would change it. But as you just heard in the gospel—and it’s not only in Matthew but also in Mark and Luke—the teaching comes directly from Jesus. Here in Matthew, Jesus adds a proviso: “unless the marriage is unlawful” (5:32), which would allow the ending of a relationship that wasn’t a lawful marriage to begin with (what we Catholics call an annulment). Is there a Christian so bold as to say, “Well, Jesus got it wrong. His teaching about marriage is false teaching, and the Church should listen to public opinion instead”?
I would say that our society’s understanding of marriage isn’t so much different from that of the ancient pagan world, except that not even the pagan Greeks and Romans would’ve imagined that gays might marry. I mean also our society’s understanding of marriage as temporary, “open,” self-centered, children optional. “Till death do us part” now seems to mean, “Till we get bored to death with each other.” This is an example of what St. Paul means by “the wisdom of this age” in contrast to “God’s wisdom,” God’s plan for human well-being in this life and in eternal life, a plan that includes permanence, fidelity, and fertility in marriage: life-long, one man and one woman, open to new life even tho there are no guarantees from nature on that score.
Finally, in our gospel reading Jesus commands us not just not to swear false oaths but even to be people of such honesty and integrity that our “yes” or “no” is sufficient. How often have you heard people emphasize their words with, “I swear it’s the truth” or “To tell you the truth” or some other phrase that stresses their truthfulness on this occasion—as if, more generally, you shouldn’t really trust them? On the contrary, it’s high praise when we can say of someone, “His word is his bond” or “Her handshake is as good as a written contract.”
At times our society seems to encourage lying and cheating—bending the rules, finding the loopholes, deceiving the public, trying to slip a foul past the ref, doing whatever it takes to get an A. And then we’re shocked—shocked!—by insider trading, athletes on steroids, school administrators changing test scores, politicians taking bribes, and the guardians of our nuclear weapons cheating on their proficiency tests. Integrity means being whole. You can’t be partly or mostly a person of integrity, as you can’t be a little bit pregnant. “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’” covers our whole self—all our words and actions, and as the Lord indicated earlier with reference to lust, also our thoughts and desires.
Being a faithful disciple of Jesus involves our whole self; not that we’re perfect—we have the sacrament of Reconciliation for our failures (I meet with my confessor every 2 weeks). But it means that we commit ourselves totally to following Jesus in this life so that we may live with him forever. “Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).