I preached this homily on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in New Orleans, Louisiana. The readings are Sirach 15:15–20, 1 Corinthians 2:6–10, and Matthew 5:17–37.
To Fulfill the Law
The Law (Commandments) are the bare minimum. The Beatitudes, which we heard a few weeks ago, represent approaches to the world. Here, Christ outlines the perfection to which the Law pointed from the start, the fulfillment he has come to make possible.
Reward and Punishment
Rule of thumb:
- Jesus makes the external observances internal virtues.
- Anything that was rewarded temporally is now, in its more perfect form, rewarded with the promise of communion with God.
- Anything that was punished by physical death in the law is punished by spiritual death (and the risk of eternal separation from God) in Jesus’ perfection of the law.
In other words, if we obey the law, come to Mass, and fulfill the bare minimum requirements of the Catholic faith, we may avoid hell, but we do not attain that perfection that gives happiness, eternal communion with the triune God. we leave the greatest reward in creation, a reward of happiness we cannot even imagine, on the table.
However, If we develop the virtues in our souls, if we seek the perfection of our heavenly Father, if we strive every moment of our lives to live in the perfect love made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our eternal reward will be great.
And notice external observance is not enough. The observance must be internal, in the heart, and so exceed that of the Pharisees – their external observance was impeccable, but their hearts were not in it.
The Individual Instructions
So that this homily is not 40 minutes long (and Fr. Powell does not hurl a hymnal at me), I would like to focus in on just two of Jesus’ instructions, here, but I invite you – I urge you – to break out the Bible at home, open that nice plastic packaging, blow the dust off of it, and spend time with the rest of these on your own. This whole of Matthew’s fifth chapter gives the outline of living the Christian life on a day to day basis.
The Law says you shall not kill, but whoever is angry will be liable to judgement
Here, we have to understand whoever is angry without cause. Righteous anger is not a sin. Anger against sin, detesting sin, even hating sin, is not against Jesus’ command or spirit. Desiring justice is not against his will. It is when this anger stops looking for justice, but instead begins to seek revenge, then it has hardened our hearts.
Now, I know we all think our anger is just, but that guy’s isn’t. Let’s face it, though. Deep down, we all know when our own anger is just or not. At least I do. And I pray God gives me the grace to let go of that anger when it comes at me.
Notice also, anger is an emotion. If something happens, and I respond (without a truly just cause) with an immediate “grr” and grit my teeth, that is not a sin. That’s an emotion. An emotion with no act of the will cannot be a sin. However, when I start nursing that anger, that wrath (and if we are honest, we have to admit that we all do that at times), we begin to plumb the depths of sin.
This is where that development of virtue comes in, though. That initial response, even though it is not itself a sin, tells me that I still have virtue to develop. If I am to be perfect as my heavenly father is perfect, I respond in charity and love, not in anger, even before my brain takes over from my emotions.
You shall not commit adultery
I was once told by a priest about a group of second graders’ first time in confession. They had clearly been prepared by their teacher with the 10 commandments. Several of them kept confessing – and these are second graders – “I committed adultery.”
Finally the priest asked, “What do you think that word means?”
The child, with all the innocence of a second grader, said “Acting like an adult.”
Jesus reminds us that committing adultery is certainly a sin. But he extends the meaning of that commandment. It is not only the external act of committing adultery that is a sin, but the action of the heart. Here, though, the translation we have in the lectionary doesn’t do a very good job of rendering what’s being said. Jesus is not challenging just the presence of lust in my heart, though, clearly, the presence of that lust again indicates the need for growth in virtue.
Jesus’ language is that of purpose. He who looks after a woman for the purpose of lusting has committed adultery with her in his heart. Ladies, you aren’t off the hook here, I have it on good authority that you have that same challenge and temptation as the guys, though it is certainly sometimes different.
The sin comes when we forget that a person has an absolute dignity by being formed in the image and likeness of God. When we reduce another person to being an object for our own pleasure, either in thought or in deed, then we have sinned against them and against God.
Jesus Does Not Mean a False Love
Now, with all that, I have to challenge each of us. Nowadays, some of Jesus’ words here are often disregarded because of his instructions elsewhere, “Do not judge…” (Mt 7:1) or “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). It is important that we understand all of this in its proper context and avoid the false love that the modern world frequently encourages. Jesus calls Christians not to less, but to more; not to a lower bar, but a higher; not to an easier life, but a perfection that is only truly possible in God.
Love is not simply accepting someone for whatever they do and whatever they choose and whoever they think they are. “Love is to will the good of another” (CCC 1766, ST I-II.26.4 corp). To will the good of each other is to will their greatest good and happiness, the good that comes in knowing and loving God. Sometimes, that will mean calling our brothers and sisters to task if they are not living up to the Christian life.
What parent among us, if we see our child reaching to touch the hot stove, would just allow them to do so because that’s what they think they want? Of course not. We would stop them and teach them that will not bring they happiness they think it will or that they want.
Jesus means every word he says here. He means that we must avoid internal sin and grow in virtue. He means that Christian marriage is a permanent sacramental state that can be dissolved by no power short of death. He means that we must forgive each other in the same way that desire forgiveness for ourselves. In short, he means that we must seek to “Be perfect…as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). These instructions, though we will, frail and faulted as we are, frequently fall short, are how we do that.
So which path will we choose? Our Lord has set two paths before us: eternal life and eternal separation from God, the perfection of our heavenly father and the mediocrity of this world. We must each pick which we will choose, and it is not a decision we can delay. As for me, I will strive every day of my life to serve the Lord (cf. Joshua 24:15) so I can hope for that reward that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived” (1 Cor 2:9).