(Saint John Fisher Church, Tarragindi: Saturday 6pm; Mary Immaculate Church, Annerley: Sunday 7:30am)
18/19 January 2014
(Readings: Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; Ps 118; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5:17-27)
One summary of the central themes of today’s readings is to say that they teach us about true Christian freedom. To speak of freedom is a challenging thing because for many people, the concept of “freedom” means that I can and will do whatever I like: to be free is to be unhindered by anyone else in the pursuit of what I choose to do. While there are elements of this that are true, it doesn’t sit neatly with a true understanding of Christian freedom.
The first reading says to us that we have a choice: fire and water are set before us: life and death – what we prefer is what we will be given.
In the Gospel, Jesus refers to the Law that God gave to His people through Moses. In the Law, particularly the ten commandments, we see enshrined not just the vices that are to be avoided (murder, adultery, lying) – but we see enshrined in these laws the good thing to be pursued: respect for life; fidelity to one’s spouse; the truth.
Jesus goes on further to say that he came not to abolish that Law, but to fulfil it. Jesus takes the commandments of the Law, and in a sense “cranks them up:” they are not just certain things that we’re to do or to avoid, as though we could tick them off and feel satisfied: but rather the truth enshrined in the law is to become so part of our being that we perceive the higher demands of the law. One commentator suggests that its like the difference between building a house and building a home; between staying married to someone and being faithful to your spouse; between never having an accident and actually being a good driver (2).
And so, the truth of respect for life that is enshrined in the commandment not to kill, is not only observed by avoiding murdering anyone (probably something that most of us manage to achieve!), but this is extended by Jesus to include “murdering” someone by our angry thoughts; or our harsh words.
Similarly, the command not to commit adultery is extended by Our Lord to include not even looking lustfully at another. Just like murder, it might be possible to avoid adultery in the strict sense, but Jesus calls us to think of the fact that there is a whole range of behaviours that make our hearts impure. There are all manner of smaller vices that predispose us to greater ones.
Fulfilling the law, which Jesus says he came to do, is not just managing to “skate” through life, and through a mixture of luck or cleverness managing to avoid the bigger sins. Fulfilling the law, in Christ, is to live the truths that the law upholds in that expansive way that Christ speaks of. We’re not just to “uphold the law” which could be likened to keeping our noses clean, but rather we are to live it. As we consider the Gospel text of today’s Mass we realize that Jesus is calling us to a higher standard than what the world around us would call us to. Our virtue must go deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees – who were the most learned and the most devout of their time. A Christian morality is not just avoiding the “big sins” – but calls for attention to virtuous living in the very bits and pieces of our daily living, and particularly in the parts of our lives that no one else even knows about. To have a virtue that goes beyond mere appearances is to be virtuous even when no one else will ever see or know our virtuous actions, but God alone.
I just want to add a little aside, because there a line in our Gospel tonight which is a little misleading because of a bad translation. When Jesus is speaking of the prohibition against divorce, our translation leads us to believe that the prohibition applies “except for the case of fornication.” To our ears that would tend to suggest that divorce is permissible, for example, after adultery. However, scholars tell us that the word “fornication” is a bad translation, and that the original word that is being translated here referred to a prohibited marriage: for example, a marriage between a brother and sister. That is to say: a marriage which should never have taken place (which in our current understanding we’d say is an invalid marriage) … divorce in such a circumstance is clearly permitted because the union is illicit to start with. I just wanted to add that because it is a line that often causes people confusion.
True Christian freedom, therefore, is far from just doing whatever I like. We will find our true freedom, and the perfection of love, in the paradoxical surrender to the laws of God, first revealed in the Old Covenant, and then amplified in the teachings of Jesus. Our virtue is not just the avoidance of all the big sins, but Jesus challenges us to look at all the things in between.
Let’s pray that the graces of this Mass will help us to have a virtue that goes beyond appearances, such that we will be virtuous even when it is God alone who will know what we have done or not done.
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