Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time February 12, 2017
Sirach 15, 15-20 + Psalm 119 + 1 Corinthians 2, 6-10 + Matthew 5, 17-37
St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL
I believe it is true for all of us here willing to look back on our lives with some honesty and humor recognizing that when it came to rules and laws we pushed boundaries. I can remember a confrontation with my father over my first car which he did not want me to have. I suffered many depravations until I had saved enough money to buy the most ridiculous old jollibee which he then forbad me to park in the driveway because it leaked more oil than it burned gasoline. The imposed rule was that I could only drive it to school and back, no cruising on Sixteenth Street, and no passengers. So, when I passed him going about forty-five in a 30mph zone on Sixteenth Street with eight of my classmates in the car, there was a problem. I considered the rules an infringement on my freedom and a public declaration that I was irresponsible and a danger to others. Then when I moved on to the seminary and discovered a community of rules and laws beyond count, there was then an even greater struggle over limitations, boundaries, interpretations, and the fine points of language. We had to wear cassocks if we ever stepped out of our rooms. The rule didn’t say what you had to wear under the cassock, and in the opening weeks of the school year it was hot in those things. The monks didn’t take kindly to bare legs showing when we walked in the wind or genuflected in chapel. What I now see about those days is that I was determined to get away with all I could. My father and I had no common values then. While I wanted absolute freedom to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. He wanted me to be safe and live long enough to perhaps suffer a son like the one he had! Those monks had a value of respect and devotion with a sensitivity to gentlemanly behavior. We just wanted to see how much we could get away with. Conformity, unity, and mutual respect were a long way from the minds of 20 year olds.
We ought not pretend that we have all grown up and gotten over it. There isn’t anyone in here who does not keep an eye out of police cars, or drive just about 78 mph on Alligator Alley when the sign says 70, or push on that accelerator when the light turns yellow. We hire professionals to find loopholes, and admire people who don’t exactly cheat on their taxes, but cut every corner and find every conceivable way to pay the least. No matter what the issue or situation, that urge to have our freedom to do what we want is always there. Our attitude toward any law depends on the reasons we see for it and on our feelings for those who have formulated it. On one level of obedience there is conformity to avoid punishment which is purely egoistic. The only reason to follow the law is to stay out of trouble. When the punishment or risk of being caught is slight, there is no motivation for observing the law. So, the law giver must make sure that the cost of disobedience is great enough to insure compliance. Too many of our young people today get more upset over being caught than they do over the truth that they were disobedient. They spend more time and energy trying to figure out how to not get caught than simply being obedient.
Today’s readings speak about a different appreciation for God’s law, and Jesus speaks about that again today just as he did once before to his apostles. In the Book of Sirach, a collection of Jewish wisdom, it is said that obedience to God’s law leads to genuine quality of life. The law turns out to be more of a revelation than a demand. As the Psalm we just heard says, God’s law offers the pathway to a life full of blessing. What Jesus proposes is that the law is a guide that shows us the way to a life full of blessing.
Jesus applies this wisdom to everyday relationships of people living in community. And it is just as true today as it was the first time he spoke. Anger which leads us to demean another comes from the same root as Cain’s murder of his brother, and if you remember, that murder happened in the context of making an offering to God. So, if we can’t figure out how to make peace among ourselves, we will start taking one another to court and end up imprisoned by our own system of retribution. When he talks about relationships between the sexes, Jesus avoids judging the picky details and simply demands due reverence for every person made in God’s image. He points out that cultivating lust destroys the heart and it devalues the woman. On the question of divorce, Jesus tells the audience that if you put someone in an impossible situation, you are responsible for what happens. No blame!
Considered in this way, we can see clearly that Jesus never came to abolish the law, but to get to the heart of the matter. Fulfillment of the law is simply a question of love. My father’s concern for me when I was 16 years old had nothing to do with his insurance liabilities. He just loved me and wanted me to live a long, healthy, happy life. It cannot be different with the a God we call, Father.