Matthew 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37
Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”
I’m going to start with a plug. I’ll be teaching a class during Lent on Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It is the subject of a series of 129 lectures given by the Holy Father between 1979 and 1984. It was the first major teaching of his pontificate. The complete addresses were later compiled and developed in many of St. John Paul’s encyclicals.
Underlying Theology of the Body is the understanding that human beings are to be seen “holistically.” I confess that this is one of those words I’ve had trouble spelling; I always wanted to start it with a “w.” No, “holistic”starts with an “h” and therefore note the ironic connection to “holy.” For us humans, being holy and being “holistic” are interrelated. In other words the Body and the Soul/Spirit cannot be viewed as strictly separate entities. Both are involved in our sanctity.
St. John Paul harkens back to the old Manichean heresy of the 3rd century which taught an elaborate dualistic understanding of the Cosmos, which saw everything as a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, over against an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process which takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light, whence it came. For Christians there is no such dualism; holiness includes both body and soul—the material and the spiritual.
St. John Paul wrote: Moral value is connected with the dynamic process of man’s innermost (being). To reach it, it is not enough to stop “on the surface” of human actions, but one must penetrate precisely the interior. (TOB 24:3)
To illustrate, I go back to an old tongue-in-cheek poem/prayer written by Shel Silverstein several decades ago. Some of you might be familiar with it. It’s the nighttime prayer of a little boy:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my toys to break, because I don’t want none of those other kids to play with them.
Although pretty funny, this interior response speaks of the lack of true morality. To be truly moral, motivation and action have to be in sync.
To gain clarity as to which specific moral acts are particularly important, we turn to the Decalogue, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. Along with the Beatitudes in the St. Matthew’s Gospel, they are the standard by which our moral decisions are to be made. So, for example, the command against bearing false witness is not just about following the rule, but it is also about the formation of an honest character. The commandment is followed not just for the sake of following it, but because by repeated faithfulness in following the commandment in our ever-changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to act honestly—to actually be honest.
Jesus is teaching this understanding in today’s Gospel lesson, which comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “The Antitheses.” It is called this because Jesus’ teaching is presented with a statement then a counter statement, the “thesis” and then the “antithesis.” So, for example, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said… ”; and then he follows with his own magisterial counterstatement, “but I say to you.” However, there’s a problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” because it seems to suggest that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not what Jesus is doing. Rather Our Lord is clarifying the true meaning of the law.
In these so-called “Antitheses,” Jesus is showing what he meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” His purpose was to teach a greater righteousness. He said that “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments are not just rules to be followed, rather they are given so that by following them we might become righteous, that we might become truly moral, truly holy with proper objective, proper intention and proper action in all that we do. If we harbor ill feelings or selfish thoughts, then we are prone to unfaithfulness. It’s holistic. Our entire being must be involved.
Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is explaining it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us.
Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to kill flows from our hearts and minds. So if we look at others with the antagonism that stems from anger rather than compassion that comes from love, we have broken the commandment against murder. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the moral, righteous, holy people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work toward reconciliation. This is the means by which we can love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies.
Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is enhancing it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle and objectify others; the lustful glance, the undressing with the eye, the fantasy of seduction are all at the heart of adultery. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses, that reveres the sacrament of marriage and respects our neighbors.
Jesus says: “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and so honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” We ask, “Is your word any good?” The commandment is given so that we would become honest, forthright people.
We don’t become moral, righteous, holy people without effort. L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become holy, righteous, moral people; it is through the daily and disciplined practice of fulfilling Christian obligations. He writes: “Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about [ballet dancers] … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.” That is how we become righteous, moral, holy people. We have to work at it—day in—day out—week in—week out.
Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might be holy people doing holy things.
We become like this not by forsaking the law, rather, we become like this by following the law with true intention. God gave the commandments in part for the formation of our character, so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.
“Jesus said to his disciples; I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We need to be careful about our rationalizations. Jesus makes it clear that there are consequences and even repercussions.
This all may seem quite daunting. That’s why we have so much help that is just a prayer away—the great cloud of witnesses, our patron saints, our guardian angels, the Blessed Mother and of course our Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—not to mention the Church and the Sacraments, our friends, family and all who love us. We’re in this together. It makes it ever so much more likely that we will not only be faithful, but as St. John Paul tells us, we can actually become holy.