Our society seems to have a really difficult time when it comes to admitting that sometimes one thing is better than the other (unless it’s a sports competition like the Olympics). Rather than encouraging our young people to strive to excel at school, for example, we minimize the achievements of some, so that others won’t feel less successful; instead of holding out the example of excellence, we celebrate mediocrity so that no one ‘feels bad’ – as if we can shield them from disappointment or struggles their entire lives. This attitude permeates our entire culture.
This attitude is often reflected in our personal relationships with God. We seem to act as if we can be minimalist in our approach to our Creator.
We may hear someone say, ‘well I’ve never sinned; I haven’t killed anyone or robbed a bank’ as if this is the threshold of acceptable behavior or sin. I’m sure we can all agree that there are things short of killing someone that are not acceptable – or other ways of stealing that may be less than robbing a bank; and I’m sure we can all agree that these ‘lesser’ offences are no less offensive. But if we continually use the extreme as the example or threshold of what we can ‘get away with’, then we do the opposite of what we are called to in our spiritual life (and indeed in our Christian journey); we fall into a trap – a mindset where we rationalize our own words and actions to minimize the damage they do to our own relationship with others, and to somehow fool ourselves into thinking that we are not distancing ourselves from a relationship of deep love with God.
We know the consequences of our actions, whether we choose to openly admit it or not; if we continually speak in anger or uncharitably to another, eventually that relationship will be beyond repair – if we look outside our relationships with lust, eventually that will have a damaging effect on the relationships we are in. And God allows us to freely choose; in the first reading from Sirach, we hear, “Before each person are life and death, good and evil, and whichever one chooses, that will be given.” God doesn’t force us to truly love him or to truly love others; but there is a responsibility we face for all of our choices and an accountability for them; it says a little later in this same passage, God “has not given anyone permission to sin.”
Perhaps we need to reacquaint ourselves with the word ‘sin’; we don’t like the word, however we have come to know its meaning; but just ignoring it because we don’t like it doesn’t deny its existence. In its simplest terms, sin means anything – thoughts, words, actions – in which we deliberately choose those things which draw us away from God, towards our selves.
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives pretty serious examples – and then shows how much higher that bar should be raised; he refers to the Law of Moses, and says it basically presents us with a threshold for our exterior actions; but it’s a minimum threshold if we are truly serious about living a life in complete and total union with God. The Law says not to commit adultery, but then Jesus says if we look at another person with lust, we have already committed adultery in our hearts; the Law says not to murder, but then Jesus says if we are angry or insulting in our words to others, we will face judgment. It sounds like an impossible task for our fallen human nature – and it is. This whole Gospel passage underscores our need to rely on God’s grace in helping us to live and act in union with Him and with each other.
While these words from Jesus sound very harsh, there is also great love in them. He is reminding all of us that rather than satisfy ourselves with some ‘minimalist’ threshold of thought or action, we are called for nobler, greater, and far more wondrous things than we could possibly imagine; and it all starts with the intentions of our hearts. If our thoughts and words and actions constantly center on ourselves, our wants, our personal desires, then eventually we will find ourselves drawn deeper into ourselves and further away from God and others. If our desire is fixed on God, and we nurture that desire, then we will be drawn more and more towards that union of great and deep and awesome love; and that union will find itself expressed more and more in our own thoughts and words and actions; and those external expressions will find us growing more deeply in our relationship with all of those around us.
While Jesus’ words are words of warning, they are also words of encouragement and support; rather than trying to rationalize selfish behaviours (and that’s very hard work), we can simply admit to ourselves that we cannot possibly attain God without His love and the help that Christ holds out to us. That admission frees us from all of the other ‘work’ and ‘weight’ of trying to rationalize our own actions, and opens us up to the grace of God’s strength and love. And we cannot imagine what that relationship holds out for us. Because as the author of 1st Corinthians tell us, “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!