Homily for Feb. 12th, 2017: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Sirach 15:15-20; Matthew 5:17-37.
AIM: To show that obedience to God=s law is a response to His love for us, not its
ADo your own thing@ is the slogan today of people who consider themselves Aliberated.@ Behind this slogan is the idea that the only thing that stands between me and happiness is lack of freedom. If laws limit my freedom B whether they are God=s laws or human laws B they must be bad. AHow much happier life would be if there weren=t so many Do=s and Don=ts.@ We may not actually say that. But probably most of us have thought it at one time or another.
Jesus would have been shocked at that idea. His religion taught him that God=s laws preserve and enhance human happiness. The Ten Commandments were God=s highest gift to the people he chose to be his own. They showed God=s special love for his people. They were directions for life, from the One who created all life. Obedience to God=s commandments was his people=s way of showing their love for the Lord God, while sharing his love with one another. The words of our responsorial psalm today express this view: AHappy are they who follow the law of the Lord!@ (Ps 119:1)
There was never anything so good, however, that it could not be abused. Law is abused when people pay more attention to its letter than to its spirit; when they think up hairsplitting interpretations to show how little the law means, instead of how much. People who approach God=s law in that manner think of their relationship with God as based not on love (which the law, rightly understood, expresses) but on legalism.
From there it is only a short step to thinking that fulfilling our Aminimum obligation@ gives us a claim on God which he is bound to honor. That was the religion of some people in Jesus= day. Sadly it is the religion of some Catholics today.
Jesus is addressing such people in today=s Gospel. He shows that legalistic human interpretations miss the true meaning of God=s commandments. God, Jesus says, looks not just at our exterior acts. He looks at our inner attitudes, desires, and thoughts. AYou have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery,@ Jesus says. ABut I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her in his heart.@ If that is what the commandment means, then who can claim perfect obedience? Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is plugging the loopholes in the law crafted by legalistic interpreters. In so doing, Jesus shows us that we can never establish a claim on God which he is bound to honor. God has a claim on us, and it is an absolute claim.
AUnless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,@ Jesus says, Ayou will not enter the kingdom of heaven.@ The scribes and Pharisees were Jesus= critics, the people who scorned him for Areceiving sinners and eating them.@ Like some Catholics today, they knew (or thought they knew) the exact limits of their obligation, whether with regard to public worship, fasting, avoidance of work on the Sabbath, or almsgiving.
With his demand for a holiness surpassing that of the outwardly most Areligious@ people in his day, Jesus was undermining the whole basis of their religious practice. Was that good news? Hardly. For such people it was horribly bad news. If God=s law really meant what Jesus said it did, then who could hope for a reward from God? No wonder they crucified him!
The Agreater righteousness@ that Jesus asks of us is based not on what we do for God, but on what God has done for us. God accepts us not because we are good enough to deserve a reward for keeping his law. God accepts us because he is so good that he wants to share his love with us, as a free gift. That is the good news: that God loves sinners B people who often fail to keep God=s law, people who know that they have no claim on God. People, in short, like us.
Does this mean that we can forget about God=s law? Of course not. AI have not come to abolish the law,@ Jesus says Abut to fulfill it.@ God=s law remains as important for us Catholics today as it was for Jesus. What Jesus changed was not the law, but our motive for keeping it. We keep God=s law not to earn a reward: blessing in this life, heaven in the next. We keep God=s law to show our gratitude for the love he lavishes upon us before we have earned it, and though we can never merit it, on any strict accounting.
Here in the Eucharist, a word that means Athanksgiving@, we the people of God receive the greatest gifts he can give us this side of heaven. At the table of the word God gives us the gift of his truth. At the table of the sacrament, he gives us the body and blood of his Son.
Enriched with these gifts, which are always more than we deserve, God sends us out into the workaday world, there to show our gratitude for his gifts by a life of generous obedience to his holy law. Our effort to thank God for the gifts he gives us here at Mass requires the best that is in us. We shall find it easier to give our best if we keep in mind the words of our responsorial psalm: AHappy are they who follow the law of the Lord.@