by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You can decide whether you’ll be loyal to God or not.” Sirach 15: 15-20
“You have heard it said to your ancestors: ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement…’” Matthew 5: 17-37
Whenever we stop to read and reflect on passages from the Gospels, we have to remember that the words attributed to Jesus, his disciples and people who came to them for help are probably not transcripts of what they said to one another or to those who cared to listen to them. After all, the Gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus and were based on the memories of those who were Jesus’ earliest followers. Inevitably, they, too, would have reflected on and interpreted some of what they heard and witnessed. Some of the things Jesus said would have been so impressive that they remembered his words perfectly. Others would have been paraphrased and interpreted. We also need to take into account the fact that the Gospel writers were intent on writing for their communities, whose needs they assessed before deciding what particular parts of Jesus’ teaching might be especially relevant to addressing those needs.
So, when we hear today’s gospel-reading, we might be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was somewhat insensitive to the role that emotions play in our lives and, especially, in our moral decision-making. We know from reflecting on our own lived lives that we often experience ourselves as a bundle of mixed emotions, and that those emotions can come in to intensify the struggle we experience when we are trying to make the decisions that we know deep-down to be right. In this context, let’s not forget that Jesus, fully human like us, experienced the full range of human emotions. In all his decisions he had to deal with the mix of emotions that the prospect of those decisions provoked.
Today’s gospel-reading is an invitation for us to reflect on our attitude to law and the situations that can arise for us when we become fixated on demanding adherence to the letter of the law by ourselves and others. Bear in mind, too, that our approach to law can sometimes be influenced by the feelings we have for those who have formulated the law in the first place. If we don’t like the politicians or judicial authorities who shape our laws, we may find ourselves inclined to discard their laws. If we are afraid of God, we might well be fixed on compliance with divine law in order to escape God’s perceived wrath or punishment. We end up failing to see God’s law as the essence of wisdom, love and respect.
A brief look at our approach to laws and regulations related to driving will tell us something about our attitude to a fairly uncomplicated kind of law. Do we stay within set speed-limits to avoid monetary and restriction penalties or because we respect the rights of fellow citizens to live and move in safety? Only we can answer that.
Closely linked to the way in which we approach law is the formation of conscience. In his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) 2016, #37, Pope Francis made the point that there has been a tendency in the Church to emphasise the gravity of doctrinal and moral issues without allowing room for faithful Catholics to make difficult decisions with the help of grace and their own consciences. He concluded this section of the document stating: “We are called to form consciences, not replace them.”
Today’s gospel-reading from the Sermon on the Mount gives us an insight into how Jesus engaged in contributing to the development of the consciences of those who had gathered to listen to him. These were people who were schooled in the teaching of Moses, who had taught them that that God’s law was not to be considered as a set of injunctions requiring conformity. On the contrary, Moses had told their ancestors that God’s law was so close to them that it dwelt in their hearts, where it would be a source of life for them: “What I enjoin on you today is neither mysterious nor remote…It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14)
In today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used examples from the Mosaic tradition the people knew and explained what was implicit in them. In speaking about the inviolability and sacredness of life, he alluded to how Cain had killed his brother Abel when he was in the act of making an offering to God. Jesus pointed out that anger and hatred of one’s brother emanates from the same place in one’s heart as the desire to murder. He proceeded to elaborate by stating that, if we cannot solve peacefully the differences between us, we might resort to court action. The consequence of tactics like that is that we end up becoming victims of our very efforts to get even.
In examining the issue of adultery, he implies that everyone is made in the image of God and is therefore deserving of respect. Any man who seeks gratification from looking lustfully at women not only devalues the women who are the objects of his desires but corrupts his own heart and devalues himself. Degrading oneself with lustful desire for gratification from the body of a woman is tantamount to adultery.
Jesus then took up the example of divorce, a practice that could be initiated in Jewish law only by a husband who could be rid of his wife even for trivial reasons. The consequence of divorce was that the woman’s livelihood was put at risk. By jeopardising the future livelihood of his former wife, the man, according to Jesus, would carry responsibility for any misfortune that eventuated for her as a result of his abandoning her.
Jesus’ final example was about people who used swearing oaths in the name of God to bolster their views and the positions they adopted. God’s name was not some magic formula for guaranteeing the success of plans and statements that were intended to deceive in the first place.
To regard compliance to divine law and the commandments which Moses had set before the people is not a formula for ensuring that one is in good standing with God. God’s law is all about ensuring that people can live decent and wholesome lives in community, respecting one another’s true dignity. Disregarding God’s law and commandments can only be regarded as an offence against God because it brings harm to members of the human community who are made in God’s image and likeness.