6th. Sunday of Year (A)
(Sirach 15:15-20; 1st. Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37)
As we look around our society today we see some amazing things not only happening, but increasingly being accepted as part of normal modern behaviour. We hear constantly about ‘racism’ of all kinds and the banter of centuries in the United Kingdom is now racist for a people becoming more and more neurotically sensitive and over-feminised by the calls to talk, talk, about one’s ailments, feelings, and needs!! We hear about babies being ‘acquired’ and fostered by gay or lesbian couples, a baby girl with two men or vice-versa; we know of groups of people lavishing much effort and showing great compassion for suffering children, whilst our society --- as a whole --- is most assiduously putting the very youngest to death for the most selfish of reasons. Children are so very decisive and divisive: being well loved by some parents willing to lavish money on their offspring yet failing to form a deep loving relationship of shared life, experience, and understanding with them; we hear of mothers who find their children more of a troublesome care than a personal joy, and of others who are less than willing to devote their own selves and their personal financial and sporting careers to their child’s human and personal formation, development, and well-being. Today, most paradoxically, children – the beautiful fruit of God-blessed human sexual and married love -- can easily be regarded and treated almost as a commodity or even as an alien invader.
Along with such attitudes to children we also read of people in modern society who so love animals that they will threaten -- even maiming or killing -- others who do not subscribe to their radical, not to say fanatical, way of thinking; and it is part of very ordinary, world-wide practice, for subversive organizations to bomb, maim, and kill fellow human beings – ordinary, uninvolved and innocent, people -- in order to draw attention to their particular causes without any sense of guilt, let alone compassion. Even in our own towns and villages, some young people, perhaps, will have little compunction about stabbing or kicking someone near to death if they become involved somewhere in violence; while city yobs will not scruple to mug, beat, rape and kill old and defenceless men, women, and even children, to satisfy their rampant 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 have people come to behave in such ways? How can a sheep, cut-in-half and preserved in a glass tank, be plugged as human art but not recognized as God’s marvellous creation? How is it that an apparently formless group of bricks or concrete blocks can be piled up by some supposedly-gifted but also possibly disturbed mind, and then be put forward and even sponsored for the admiration of the more or less normally gifted and balanced public?
How difficult, how very difficult it must be to bring up young people, and for young people themselves to grow to authentic maturity, in such a society! Who can protect, guide and sustain them in right ways? How can they not learn to walk in accordance with all that goes on around them?
And so, very many people today say about their own faults and failings, ‘I couldn’t do anything else, I had no choice ..’ Sin, personal fault, is no longer acknowledged, accepted, ‘it’ has always been caused by someone else, ‘it’ has always been forced on the culprit.
Such thoughts occupied the mind of the author of our first reading who wrote:
Do not say ‘It was the Lord’s doing that I went astray. Before each person are life and death, stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Great is the wisdom of the Lord, His eyes are on those who fear Him, and He knows every human action.
Jesus, our Lord and God-given Saviour to guide us through the desert of this sinful world, Jesus the all-holy Son of God made man, has even stronger words for us His followers and disciples, as your heard in the Gospel reading, words of both warning and most solemn promise, words that both challenge and inspire:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Such words of Jesus were regarded exclusively as words of warning and threat by the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ time, who preferred their position of authority among the Chosen People to the prospect of God’s Kingdom coming among them where all men and women of good-will would be able to know and love God and attain the salvation and fulfilment He promised. The Pharisees and Scribes interpreted and adapted the Law given to Moses according to their own human traditions and they were most unwilling to look forward to blessings ... even though they were promised by God Himself ... because their own present advantages of power and prestige filled their hearts and minds. That is why Jesus went on to tell us:
I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
People of God, we Catholics are in a fluctuating and transitional 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 and threat than as an opportunity, a challenge, and a promise. In their days the Pharisees had, with great effort and industry, built up a hedge as they called it, a hedge of human prescriptions and practices which were meant to preserve the children of Israel from failing in their observance of the commandments of the Law as understood by the traditions and teaching of their Pharisee leaders and self-appointed guides along God’s ways. Jesus spoke with feeling about such people and practices saying:
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. (Matthew 23:4)
There he was sympathizing with those thus burdened; 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 recommended to, urged upon, others, which again were meant to protect the commandments and prevent sin of course, but which also in practice ended up by stifling others. The result was that many, especially of the young, either rebelled or gave up in ‘despair’. That situation then provoked a reaction from some 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 Mother Church’s moral law. Unfortunately, at times they went on to not only make lighter the load of human commandments and, but also to water down those of God: and today we, as a result, many find themselves in a state of flux, not knowing when to be firm and unyielding 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:
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.
Today, that command still remains as valid as ever for Pope, priests and people, for each of us and for our children.
The second great commandment was given us by the example of the Lord Jesus and from His words, but expressed perhaps most memorably for us by St. Paul (1 Cor 13:11-13) when he wrote:
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The legitimate developments of modern theology 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:
If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32)
So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)
This teaching of Jesus was reiterated with emphasis by St. Paul in his 2nd. letter to the Corinthians (3:17) and also to the Galatians (5:1):
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
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 true Christian appreciation of freedom: its whole purpose and meaning is to enable us, both truly and fully, in both a human and divine way, to love and serve God in and above all things, and our neighbour as ourselves; and in so doing, to enable each of us individually to become our own authentic self as planned, willed, and loved, by God.
That is the great challenge and promise of our life here on earth, to learn -- despite the morass and chaos brought about by our sins past and present – how, under the guidance and power of the Spirit of Jesus, to love God the Father, and become in Jesus, His true children. 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 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 by His 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, the popular practices and persuasions, of men: for we have been made free for God: we can choose among human prescriptions as we will, but always and only with this one aim and aspiration in mind: to learn love God with our whole mind, heart, soul, and strength in Jesus and freely by the Spirit.
Notice that I say learn to love God, because none of us, of ourselves, knows how to love Him aright. That is one of the reasons Mother Church has been given to us and we to her: we have to learn how to love God as He wants 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, alone is permanently endowed with the presence of 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 can be part of the life of each one of us, can make us holy in Jesus for the Father. Human practices can help but they may also hinder, and they can never make us holy. Holiness is loving God in self-forgetfulness; true sanctity 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 the righteousness 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 righteousness. Our righteousness, to be authentic, can only be received as a gift from the Father, given by the Spirit, to those whose supreme desire is to be found as His true children in the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus, His only-begotten and most beloved, Son.
As Moses was leading Israel across the lonely desert, guided, protected, and nourished by God alone, towards the Promised Land where Israel would be surrounded by pagan powers and pagan practices, he wanted so much to guide and protect his people, that he said to them shortly before his death:
See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me; observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations. Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not let (these laws and decrees) slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. (Deut. 4:1, 5-9)