MARCH 5, 2004, FRIDAY OF FIRST WEEK OF LENT: HOMILY- MATTHEW 5:20-26
UNLESS YOUR HOLINESS SURPASSES THAT OF THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES, YOU SHALL NOT ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. With these words our Lord gives out the spirit of his preaching and the teaching he imparts in private to his chosen disciples. He sets it forth here in The Sermon on the Mount and proceeds to spell out in extensive detail just what such holiness requires in specific life situations. It is not enough carefully to observe the law in all its details. The holiness required for the kingdom of God is above all, interior, situated in the depths of the heart whence proceeds a person’s thoughts and acts. On another occasion Jesus was to state the ethical principle governing the moral life of his followers. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles him” (Mt.15:11). This will hopefully seem obvious to us here, but it was such a radically fresh manner of viewing human behavior at the time that the disciples took Jesus aside and pointed out that he had scandalized the Pharisees by this doctrine; further, Peter asked him to explain this matter for them since it was not clear what he intended to convey by so audacious a doctrine.
All of the Holy Fathers have insisted on this concept as being the heart of Christian morality and spirituality. St. Benedict states in his Rule that it is not enough to carry out an obedience; we must do so from the heart, putting aside any tendency to complain and still more to murmur. In civil law, the intent plans very little part in many instances. If a man speeds in order to get to an important meeting in time to make a major contribution, the law does not honor his intent, only the deed. St. Augustine well understood the importance of Jesus’ teaching in the whole of this sermon, which to be sure includes much more than this single principle. He states expressly that “this sermon is filled with all the precepts by which the Christian life is formed” (Sermon on the Mount 5.1). Compliance with the message delivered by our Lord, as he was keenly aware, required a great effort and so a strong motive. For his words call us to radical change of heart, the overcoming of habits and the redirection of natural urges and dispositions. This motive, Jesus further points out, is love.
For love to prove effective as a force for change it must be pure and strong. Deep seated habit requires persistent and strenuous effort to uproot; character and temperament require unrelenting watchfulness and determined self-criticism to alter for the better. And in the course of this sermon the Lord sets forth degrees of love. The first kind of love is based on nature and consists in loving those who are good to us, just as the worst sin against love is to hate or neglect those to whom we owe such love. One need not be a Christian to live by such a love: “even the pagans do this”, Jesus was to say. But it too has its demands at times. Parents can become a burden; brothers and sisters can offend us in one way or another so that we may feel freed from any obligations to them. Not so, says the Lord. Even if it be a neighbor who offends us, we are to seek reconciliation as best we can and without delay, if we would offer service to God. This is the next step on the way to pure love: to extend our good will and benevolence to those outside our immediate circle, even to strangers and foreigners. When Jesus gives out the commandment to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us, he states the perfection of love, and in fact it is after this statement that he adds: ”Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)
We need not attempt to live out this program for long before we discover how exacting it proves to be at times. To prove effective it requires not only a determined will, however essential that is; we must also learn by honest self-scrutiny to know how our views of people and situations are often biased and so unjust or narrow. We soon learn that striving for perfection entails that we first learn to live with imperfection, neither denying our faults and failings nor losing hope because they seem so reasonable at the time we act on them. Nothing seems more suited to justice than to get even with someone who has offended us; when we are angry expressing our displeasure with another appears not only reasonable but a duty of justice. ‘He has it coming’, we feel so long as anger dominates our thought. On occasion we discover too that we need to learn to stand alone, not to rely on the approval of others when we act according to a conscience formed by Jesus’ teaching. We cannot follow God’s will in all circumstances without offending on occasion those who do not understand what the Lord requires of us. Only those who are rooted I the heart of the Lord can be steady in their own heart and so firm in purpose. This is the challenge that our Savior poses to each of us then at this first week of Lent: to enter our heart where he reveals himself to us and to remain rooted there so as to seek to please him in all we do, say and think. May the grace of this Gospel and of this holy Eucharist sustain us in this striving.U
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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