Perhaps it helped your self-esteem last week when Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth...you are the light of the world." Well, this Sunday he gets real specific about what that means. Do not think that being light and salt puts you above the law, that there is one standard of morality for ordinary folk and another one for someone spiritual like yourself. No, Jesus say, "I have not come to abolish the law, but to bring it to its completion."
Now, we have to admit that Jesus' completion of the law has been a puzzle for Christians down the ages. He in fact takes what is a fairly demanding law and makes it sound downright impossible. "You were told, 'thou shalt not commit adultery,' but what I tell you is that if a man looks at a woman with lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." And He goes on to do the same with the commandments about murder and lying under oath. He expresses them in a such a way that most of us must admit we break them every day.
The dilemma was rather humorously underscored by Jimmy Carter when he was running for president in 1976. In an interview he stated that while he had not literally committed adultery, he had done what Jesus equally condemns. He admitted to commiting adultery in my heart. The media, clueless about the biblical sins of pride and lust, had a Roman holiday. Jokes abounded. To his credit Carter took it all in good humor. While campaigning in the midwest, a farmer introduced his wife to the candidate, "Mr. Carter, this is my wife. But please do not lust after her in your heart." He stepped back, eyed the rather portly woman and said, "I can't help it."
The humor come from the confusion lust and true appreciation of feminine beauty. And also the fact that most of us consider adultery in the heart to be fairly innocent in comparison to the real thing. But we are blind to Jesus' deeper teaching. Pope John Paul has brought this out powerfully. The basic law of Jesus is to treat each person as a person, not as an object. In that sense, the Holy Father explains, to look at the other person as an object of our pleasure is the worst thing we can do to them. The pope, like Jimmy Carter, was mocked for drawing a logical conclusion: no man should lust after any woman, especially his wife.
Sometimes people have tried to say that Jesus warns against lust because it can lead to adultery. But in reality it is just the opposite. Jesus turns things upside down. Adultery is a sin because it makes the other person an object. The adulterer is willing to trample on that other person's deepest values in order to get what he wants.* Lust, as Jesus describes it, is a terrible dehumanization.
What Jesus says about adultery can also be said about murder and perjury. For sure they are crimes which no society can leave unpunished, but on a spiritual level there is something worse. To treat the other person as an object of my anger (to call him stupid or jerk) is more terrible than murder. To make the other as an object of my deceit (to say "yes" when I mean "no") is more reprehensible than perjury. Is this an intolerable exaggeration? Is it an impossible ideal?
Before we slink away from Jesus' words, let's first listen to one of the most down to earth teachers in the whole Bible. In our first reading, Sirach stated: "If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice." (Sir. 15:15) In our better moments we know that is true. We talk about pornography, alcohol and drugs as compulsions, but in those instances when we are wide awake, we know we have the power to choose. Even tho we might fall daily by anger, lust and deception, we recognize that each time we took the first step. No one shoved us.
Clearly we need to own our falls. They belong to us, not to someone else or some force outside us. And just as clearly we need to repent, even if we sometimes think that God and our confessor gets tired of hearing the same old sins. Archbishop Flores has said that in the final analysis "the only sin is despair." We need the courage to face who we are--and who God is.
There is something more here. Because we are entering into Lent, we will not hear the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. But it is vitally important if we are to grasp the hard teachings Jesus gives us today. Toward the end of this discourse, which is like the Magna Carta of Christianity, Jesus says, "Do not judge, that you be not judged." (Mt 7:1) If we have really understood Jesus' words today, we would think long and hard about judging someone else.
We've seen the folly of judgement acted out on our national stage. We perhaps smirked (or winced) when we saw that people who condemned marital infidelity and lying were themselves exposed. As Christians we should recognize something here. In the eyes of the law it does make a big difference if something happened last week or thirty years ago, but in God's eye that distinction does not hold. For Him a youthful indiscretion is just as present as a last gasp before senility. Not only that, He sees our heart as well as our external actions. In that hidden place we may have done things worse than adultery, murder or perjury.
For that reason we should flee from judging someone else. (The only time we are permitted to judge is when it involves someone under our direct responsibility: a parent to child, teacher to student, priest to parishioner. And it will be pretty clear that we are not sinning because that kind of judgement is always a burden, never a pleasure.) Judging others when we have no call to do so is most destructive. Unfortunately it has become rampant in our society and, let's admit, even in the Church.
When I was a young priest, I saw that kind of judging destroy a family. They had two sons who I liked a lot--they combined respect with friendliness and were very involved in our high school program. But the parents took exception to a decision I had made as pastor. When they saw that even after explaining their reasons to me, I would not change, they became bitter. They ascribed the worst possible motives to me and talked to their friends about it, hoping to build up a groundswell. I deduced that they also talked to their children (or in their hearing) because their boys began to be a little more distant. Friendliness gave way to sarcasm and they eventually dropped out of the program and refused to go to Mass. To this day I doubt that the parents realize why their sons left the Church. They probably still say, "If Father Bloom would have just listened to us, done what we wanted, everything would have been OK..."
Such bitterness has its roots in judging when it is a matter we are not directly responsible for. There is of course an appropriate moment when we can ask a respectful question, offer an opinion, give a word of advice, perhaps even make a complaint to a legitimate superior. But none of those things give a license to gossip. "I'm not telling you anything I did not say to him. But please keep this just between ourselves." That's the kind of judging Jesus warns us against.
Few of us realize how demanding Jesus' law is. This Sunday we got a glimpse of it. But this exigence is not meant to make us despair. Help is at hand. It is called forgiveness and grace. That is what we ask for, especially as we enter the season of Lent
*That the other party is a consenting adult does not change the underlying reality. The idea something is OK because a person chooses can be traced to 19th century German philosophers, but has no basis in the Bible or Catholic tradition. For us consent is one of the three things necessary to make an act a sin. (Cf. Discussion of Mortal Sin and Masturbation.)
Reflection on Overcoming Masturbation
Sexual Fantasies and Masturbation (a normal way to release tensions?)
About the Sacrament of Confession
From Archives (Sixth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies
Podcasts of homilies (website of my niece, Sara)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Planned Parenthood Aids Pimp's Underage Sex Ring
Renewal of Vows, Prayers of Faithful and Blessing of Married Couples on World Marriage Day
Parish Picture Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru