March 10th, 2017:
Four times in this first week of Lent the gospel reading is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. On Tuesday Jesus told us how to pray by giving us the Our Father. Yesterday’s gospel continued this teaching with Jesus encouraging faithfulness to prayer by telling us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Today and tomorrow Jesus speaks about the central concern of Jewish religion: God’s law. There is an important phrase that we heard twice today and that shall hear again tomorrow: “But I say to you …” With those words Jesus distances himself from normal Jewish practice.
Other teachers of God’s law cite a Commandment and then discuss its interpretation, citing the interpretations of other famous rabbis. The Commandment to “Keep holy the Sabbath day,” for instance, raises the whole question of what kinds of work are forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus speaks not, like other rabbis, as an interpreter of the law. He speaks as himself the Lawgiver.
“You have heard, ‘You shall kill.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Or – “You have heard, “Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you whoever looks lustfully on a woman, has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” Or again – “You have heard, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Or finally – “You have heard, ‘Do not take a false oath.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all.”
Do you see what Jesus is doing? Two things. First, by speaking not as an interpreter of God’s law, but as the Lawgiver, Jesus is manifesting his divinity. He does the same when he forgives sins. Second, he is plugging the loopholes in the law developed by legalistic interpreters – “the scribes and Pharisees” mentioned at the beginning of today’s gospel. If the Commandments really mean what Jesus says they mean, then they are beyond our power to fulfill completely.
Many people think of the Commandments as questions in a moral examination in which we must first get a passing grade before God will love and bless us in this life, and admit us to heaven in the next. That’s wrong! God loves us already, just as good parents love their children from birth, or even from conception, without waiting to see how they’ll turn out. The Commandments tell us how to respond gratefully to the free gift of God’s love. And if a long life has taught me anything, it is this: grateful people are happy people – no exceptions!