Bottom line: "But I say to you..." In this bold phrase, we see Jesus' remarkable authority, his exousia. He comes not only to give us essential teachings; he comes to give us Himself.
Last Sunday I talked about the difference between two Greek words that we translate as "good." To help explain today's Gospel, I am going refer to another Greek word. In doing this I feel a bit like the professor's chaufer. He had driven a professor around the country and each evening he had sat in the audience. One day the chaufer said, "Professor, I have listened to your lecture dozens of times. I could give it by heart." So that night the professor donned the chaufer's uniform and sat up front in the auditorium. The chaufer gave the lecture perfect, word for word.
When he finished, a man asked, "Professor, you said that H2O2 plus Na4K3 equals E over MC squared. How is that possible?"
The chaufer thought for a second, then replied, "That is stupid question. In fact, it is the stupidest question I have ever heard. And just to show how stupid it is, do you see that chaufer in the front row? I am going to let him answer it!"
Like I said, I will be referring to a Greek word, but don't ask me too many questions afterwards. I wish I would have studied Greek harder when I was in the seminary. Since the New Testament was written in that language, it is most helpful to know some Greek.
The Greek word I want to focus on is "exousia." It is one of those words that is hard to express in English. It is variously translated as "authority ," "power," "dominion," and "capacity." William Barclay defines exousia as "the power to add and the power to take away at will." At the end of the Sermon on the Mount St. Matthew says that Jesus taught with authority - exousia - not like the Scribes and Pharisees.
We see Jesus' authority, his exousia, in today's Gospel - which is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Four times Jesus quotes a passage from the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. After citing each of the Scripture verses, Jesus says, "But I say to you..." He is making an amazing claim of authority and power.
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict comments on the phrase, "But I say to you..." To show how radical the claim is, the pope cites a Jewish Scripture scholar, Rabbi Jacob Neusner. Regarding Jesus' approach to the Law, Rabbi Neusner asks, "What did Jesus leave out?" He answers, "Nothing." Then he asks, "What did Jesus add?" To that the Rabbi answers, "Himself."*
Jesus did not come to give a new law. He came to give us Himself.
You can find the moral law in many sources: Plato, Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, as well as Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Native American and other traditions.** They all teach to not lie, steal, kill (take innocent human life), commit adultery or dishoner one's parents. In that sense one can say that all religions are the same. We all know this law because God has written it on the human heart (Rom 2:15). Jesus applies the law by stressing the seriousness of holding on to anger and lust, of seeking divorce and of taking unnecessary oaths. In telling his followers to avoid vain desires and to concentrate on today and not fret about tomorrow, Jesus sounds very much like the Buddha.
Buddha tried to show people a path to peace. Jesus likewise shows a path, but much more important: He is the path. Jesus gives us Himself. It cannot be otherwise: Jesus, after all, is the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son of the Father. As we say in the creed, he is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. As such he is the path, the way to the Father.
To say this about Jesus is no offense to Moses, Buddha, Lao or even Mohamed. None of those teachers claimed to be the way. They showed a way, but were not themselves the way. Like Jesus they gave many good teachings. But Jesus came to give more than doctrines. He came to give us Himself.***
We need Jesus to even begin to live his teachings. For example, he states:
"You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
This is no easy teaching. A famous Jimmy Carter story illustrates this in a humorous way. When he was running for president, Carter mentioned in an interview that, although he had never been unfaithful to his wife, he had, he admitted, "committed adultery in my heart." Back on the campaign trail, a married couple approached Carter, "This is my wife," the man said with a smile, "but, please Mr. Carter, but don't lust after her in your heart." Carter looked at the portly, middle aged lady and said, "I can't help it."
Well, Jimmy Carter had a way of being self-effacing. It was one of his better qualities. The whole issue of lustful desires is something that we need to approach with humility and good humor. When a person thinks he has it all under control and starts looking down on others, it often precedes a fall.
We need humility, because disordered desires can lead to terrible damage. Jesus spoke about this danger. So did the Buddha, so did Plato and other great teachers. If could live those teachings, we would find inner peace - and our world would be so much better. But Jesus not only tells us what to do - he invites us into a relationship with himself. When we stumble, he wants to pick us up. When we are tempted, he wants to give us the grace to turn from evil - and embrace the good.
Now, I have developed just one example of how we need Jesus to live the moral law - to find inner peace. You could say something similar about his teaching on avoiding unnecessary oaths, anger and divorce. But I am like the professor's chaufer - better to leave those topics to someone more prepared. I would like to conclude this homily with a three-sentence summary:
*Jesus of Nazareth, p. 105
**At the end of Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis lines up quotes from these sources to illustrate the universality of the moral law, what he calls the Tao.
***In discussing the temptations of Christ, Pope Benedict asks: "What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity and a better world? What has he brought?"
The pope responds: "The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God." (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 44)
From Archives (Sixth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Renewal of Vows, Prayers of Faithful and Blessing of Married Couples on World Marriage Day
Parish Picture Album
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Planned Parenthood responds