A. Some years ago, on a flight from New York to Chicago, a man seated next to me noticed that I was dressed as a priest and asked if he could talk to me about his problems with the Church. Just at that moment the flight attendant told us to buckle our seatbelts and I’ll confess that I not only buckled it but I also made sure it was pulled a little tighter than usual. I was getting ready for in-flight turbulence of another kind.
B. But, you know, it wasn’t that way at all. My fellow passenger was a good person; he only was feeling perplexed. In fact, he felt like a lot of people probably feel. “I was raised Catholic,” he began, “but I’ve fallen away. And the reason is that there are so many rules to keep. The Church imposes too many laws and rules on its parishioners. We need less rules and more love!”
C. As he spoke further, it seemed to me that he had jumbled up in his mind everything from the Ten Commandments to the rule about turning off one’s cell phone while in Church. So, I spent a little bit of time sorting all this out with him, but, in the end, I had to agree with him: a church that is nothing but rules is untrue to the teaching of Christ; a church is perceived to be only a jumble of rules will not fulfill Christ’s mission. And this brings us to the subject of today’s Scripture readings, viz., how Jesus wants us to understand God’s law, summed up in the Ten Commandments
II. Choosing to Keep the Commandments: Sirach 15:15-20
A. And let’s begin with our first reading from the Book of Sirach. The author of that book was a scribe named Ben Sira who lived and wrote a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. Learned and wise, Ben Sira presents God’s commandments to us not as burdensome rules but rather as a source of life and joy. “If you choose,” he proclaims, “you can keep the commandments.” He celebrates the commandments not as rules designed to make us miserable but rather as reflections of God’s wisdom and God’s infinite care for us.
B. For Ben Sira, obeying the commandments expresses our trust in God’s wisdom and helps us to orient our lives toward God’s saving love. So he doesn’t celebrate the commandments as a mere code of conduct but rather as a path to holiness, happiness, and wisdom. He almost makes it seem as if it’s actually fun to keep God’s commandments!
III. Interiorizing the Law of Love: Matthew 5:17-37
A. So, now, let’s fast forward to our Gospel reading from St. Matthew where Jesus gives us his teaching on the law and the prophets. Notice what Jesus doesn’t say to us: He doesn’t say that the Old Law given by Moses and the Prophets was too tough: “I’m your merciful Savior, so I came to bring you easier and simpler rules”. No, Jesus tells us that he came not to abolish the law & prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus rejects neither the Commandments nor the warnings of the prophets because the law and the prophets contained in them the promise of our salvation. They contained in them the promise that we might be freed of our sins, freed from foolishness, ignorance, greed, impurity, and hatred. And freed from all these things, our minds, our hearts, even our bodies are then freed to share so fully in God’s wisdom that our thoughts and actions reflect God’s love. In fact, Jesus, God’s Eternal Son, became one of us and entered human history to fulfill this promise, contained all along, in the law and the prophets.
B. In the rest of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus spells this out by contrasting two opposing approaches to God’s commandments. The first approach regards the commandments as regulators of external conduct; that’s how my fellow airline passenger saw the Church, as a moral police force, and that’s also how the Scribes and Pharisees approached God’s commandments – as regulations governing even the minutiae of daily living. But Jesus offers us a second approach, telling us that we can and must do better than the Scribes and Pharisees – so, what does “better” look like?
C. What I think Jesus wants to tell us this afternoon is this: he’s not giving us a pass on keeping the commandments – they mean what they say. What Jesus did come to do was to change our hearts from the inside out. He wants not only good conduct but a good heart, a pure heart, filled with good thoughts, good attitudes, and good motives – a heart, a mind, a conscience from which good deeds and loving words flow. So, it is no longer a matter of not killing or not physically harming my neighbor; it’s also a matter of my not harboring angry thoughts and resentment. In fact, Jesus says, if we harbor anger and resentment toward our neighbors, then we need to be reconciled with them before making our offering to God. Likewise, it is no longer enough to avoid breaking the Sixth Commandment externally. If we harbor lust in our hearts, if we objectify another person for our pleasure – something so easy to do in this electronic age – we’ve also committed adultery. Jesus tells us to go extreme lengths not only to avoid overtly bad behavior but indeed to purify our hearts – our physical eye and our mind’s eye. In other words, you and I, by listening to God’s Word and by receiving the grace of the Sacraments, can and must interiorize God’s wisdom and love embedded in the Commandments. When we have fallen deeply in love with the Lord and learned how to deepen and share our faith in the community of the Church, then we will no longer regard the commandments as rules but rather as guides to a response of love welling up from hearts, hearts that have touched, purified, and transformed by Christ’s love. ‘Happy indeed are those who follow the law of the Lord!’
IV. Concrete Vocational Examples: I Corinthians 2:6-10
A. So, dear friends, let me offer practical examples of the difference between merely following the rules and doing the right thing with a loving heart. Suppose a married couple were to say, “Our marriage is wonderful. We don’t steal from each other. We don’t lie to each other. We don’t cheat on one another . . . and so far, we haven’t killed one another!” Is this an ideal marriage? Probably not! “Where’s the love in all that?” we’d ask. I could say something similar about the priestly ministry I share in God’s grace. Is being a good priest merely a matter of following the ecclesiastical law? Or, does it have something to do with having the heart of the Good Shepherd?
B. Isn’t this also what St. Paul tried to communicate to the unruly Corinthians? In our second reading he speaks of a type of wisdom for those who are mature – not just those who are getting older but for those who have been truly formed as followers, disciples of Jesus and active members of the Church. Such people are open to the Holy Spirit who searches even the deep things of God. The Spirit imparts to them a wisdom that goes beyond the wisdom of this world. This wisdom shapes the whole conduct of their lives – from the most routine decision to the most basic decisions, such as the vocational path the Lord is asking us to follow in life, whether we are called to the priesthood, to consecrated life, or marriage.
C. St. Augustine once said, “Love and do what you will!” Let us allow God’s love truly to possess and shape our hearts. We’ll still need God’s help; we’ll still stumble and fall; yet there will arise from within us day by day a response of love to the God who is love, to the God who loved us first, and the God who loves us best. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!