6th. Sunday of Year (1)
(Sirach 15:15-20; 1st. Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37)
As we look around the world today we see some amazing things not only happening as current expressions of perennial human weakness and wickedness, but, much more disconcertingly, we find such things becoming increasingly accepted as part of tolerable, if not normal, behaviour in our modern society. We hear of plans to clone babies, and of couples waiting for the opportunity to have a child in such a way; of babies being fostered by gay or lesbian couples, a baby girl with two men or vice-versa; or again of babies being bought and sold on the internet. We read of people living long in our earthly nirvana and yet finding themselves, or being found by their relatives, as a burden too great to endure, and so they make arrangements, or relatives are led to think of plans, for their assisted exit from this life. Again, in our society there are numbers of people who so love animals that they will threaten to bomb -- perhaps killing or maiming -- human beings who do not subscribe to their radical, not to say fanatical, way of thinking; and it is a very ordinary, world-wide practice, for subversive organizations to bomb, maim, and kill, innocent people in order to draw attention to their particular causes without any sense of guilt or trace of compassion. Even our own, we think to be relatively decent, young people, can sometimes show little or no compunction about kicking someone near to death, if they become involved somewhere in random, unplanned and unanticipated, violence. Yob gangs, however, of cities, towns, or even at times rural localities, will not scruple to mug, beat, and kill individual men both young and old, to abuse and rape women, girls, and even children, to satisfy their rampant pride and unbridled passions of all sorts.
Sorrowfully recalling these things, and many others like them, to mind, we wonder at times what is happening to our world. How can people come to behave so badly and think in such strange ways? How can a sheep, cut in half and preserved in a glass tank, be regarded as art? How is it that apparently formless groups of bricks or concrete blocks can be piled up in some unrecognisable manner and then put forward and even sponsored for the admiration of the more or less normally gifted and balanced public?
How difficult it is for parents to bring up young people in such a society! And how very difficult it must be for young people themselves, growing up in such a society and open to the world-wide reach and menacing threat of the internet!! Who, what, can protect, guide and sustain them in right ways? With such a question in mind we can appreciate the words and the thought of the psalmist who said (Ps. 119:105):
Your word, Lord, is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
Moses, having led Israel across the lonely desert where she had been guided, protected and nourished, by God alone, towards the Promised Land where he knew she would inevitably be surrounded by pagan powers and pagan practices, most earnestly wanted to forewarn and protect his people as we would dearly love to do for ours. It was a concern to which he gave expression shortly before his death:
Therefore, I teach you the statutes and decrees as the LORD, my God, has commanded me, that you may observe them in the land you are entering to occupy. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’ (Deuteronomy 4:5–6)
Then he added words that most certainly should impress and concern each and every parent and committed Catholic present here today, words which might even strike some of us to the heart both piercingly and painfully:
However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children. (Deuteronomy 4:9)
Jesus, our leader through the desert of this sinful world, Jesus the all-holy Son of God made man, has yet stronger advice and warning for us, as you heard in the Gospel reading where He authoritatively declared:
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.
In later Judaism that valediction of Moses came to be regarded above all as a harbinger of danger by the Pharisees and Scribes, with the promise and challenge they offered being, in comparison, overlooked. That is why Jesus, for His part, went on to tell us:
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
People of God, we Catholics are in a fluctuating, transitional, and dangerous situation today. We have experienced times when it was widespread among Catholics to imitate the Scribes and Pharisees by looking upon God’s commandments as more of a warning, even a hidden threat, rather than as an opportunity, a challenge indeed, but also a wondrous promise. The Pharisees, with great effort and industry, built up a hedge, as they called it, a hedge of human prescriptions and practices which they thought would -- if observed and maintained -- preserve the children of Israel from any danger of failing in their observance of the Law to the fullness of its literal acceptance. Jesus, however, spoke with feeling about such methods of teaching, saying (Matthew 23:4):
They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
There he was sympathizing with those thus burdened; but at another time He openly attacked the Pharisees for concocting such loads for others (Mark 7:6-8):
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.
So too in the Church at particular epochs the commandments of men have been brought in to shore-up, so to speak, the commandments of God and of His Church: practices of devotion were thought up and urged upon others which were, indeed, meant to protect the commandments, but which ended up, in practice, by stifling the people. The result has been that some, especially the young, rebelled against such burdens, while others initially embraced them but in the end gave them up in disillusionment or despair. That situation then provoked a reaction from certain well-meaning clerics and teachers of various sorts who tried to help the lapsed or lapsing return to the practice of the Faith by watering-down ‘requirements’. Unfortunately, at times they tried not only to make lighter the load of human recommendations, but also went on to water down the very commandments of God: and so today, as a result, some people find themselves in a state of flux not really knowing when to be firm and steadfast, or how to adapt and develop.
There are two great commandments in our practice of the Christian and Catholic way of life. The one was much cited in past centuries, and was first given us in the Scriptures, where Samuel said, in the name of the Lord, to the errant king Saul (1 Samuel 15:22):
Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice.
And today, that command still remains as valid as ever for Pope, priests and people, for our children and their offspring.
The other great commandment was afforded us by the sublime example of our Blessed Lord Jesus Himself and expressed most memorably by the beautiful words of St. Paul when he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:11-13):
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The legitimate developments of modern theology too help us towards the fulfilment of this commandment of love by strongly reminding us that we, being made in the image of God, are free; indeed we are essentially made for freedom. In this, modern theology is only restating words from our Lord Himself Who said to some Jews aspiring to follow Him as His disciples (John 8:31-32, and 36):
If you remain in My word, you will truly be My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free; (and) if the Son frees you, then you will truly be free.
This teaching of Jesus was reiterated with emphasis by St. Paul in his letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
However, we must be aware, dear People of God, that the word “freedom” is both much misunderstood and widely abused today, and therefore we must be careful to understand aright the Christian appreciation of freedom: its whole purpose and meaning is to enable us -- both truly and fully, both humanly and divinely -- to love and serve God in and above all things, and our neighbour as ourselves; and in so doing, to enable each of us to become our own authentic self as individually planned, willed, loved and saved, by God for His greater glory.
That is the supreme challenge and most glorious promise for us in our life here on earth, to learn -- despite the morass and chaos brought about by our own and humanities’ sins past and present -- under the guidance and power of the Spirit of Jesus, how to love God the Father, and become His true children in Jesus. And in order to fulfil that glorious privilege and calling we have to hold firm both to God’s commandments and to our divine endowment of freedom. We cannot become children of God by disobeying His commandments, commands Jesus explicitly said He did not come to abolish but to fulfil; we cannot walk in the ways of Jesus by ignoring His teaching in the Scriptures opened up to us in and by His Holy Church, for we are only brought to life in Jesus by the Spirit as members of His Body, the Church. We must therefore, hold firm to God’s commandments in His Church. We must also hold firm to our freedom with regard to the customs and commandments, the popular practices and persuasions, of men: for we have been made free for God: we can choose among and between human prescriptions as we will, but always and only with this supreme aim and aspiration in mind: to learn to love God with our whole mind, heart, soul, and strength in Jesus.
Notice that I say learn to love God, because none of us -- of ourselves -- knows how to love Him aright. That is why Mother Church has been given to us and we to her: we have to learn how to love God as He wills to be loved, and we can only learn that with our brethren in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and our Mother, and which, as such, is alone fully endowed with the Holy Spirit of Love. For the Spirit alone, the Holy Spirit of Love, given us by Jesus and working in and through Mother Church in the life of each one of us, can make us holy. Human practices can help but they may also hinder, and in any case they can never make us holy. Holiness is loving God in self-forgetfulness; true holiness is delighting in God above all and in all. It is a gift, a grace, from the One Who is, Personally, the Gift of God. That is the only way in which our righteousness can, and will, surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees as Jesus demanded. Their righteousness was admirable in many respects but it was a legal, human, and ultimately, a self-contrived and self-exalting righteousness. Our righteousness, on the other hand, to be authentic, can only be received as a gift from the Father, bestowed by the Spirit, upon those whose supreme desire is to be found in heaven as His true children in Jesus, His only-begotten and uniquely beloved, Son; and on earth, as true members and defenders of Mother Church, Jesus’ ultimate bequest to all His disciples:
When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ (John 19:26s.)