One Sunday morning a preacher was greeting folks at the door after the service. A woman took the preacher’s hand and said, “Father, that was a very good sermon.” The preacher, humble as always, said, “Oh, I have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” “It wasn’t THAT good!” she said.
The Sermon on the Mount was that good. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us not only a ton of basic teaching but also a glimpse of how God sees things, what we call the “economy of the Kingdom of God.” Today we get a bit of teaching about the Law, those 600 plus laws that we mention at each Mass when we reference “all the Law and the Prophets.”
“By the time Jesus had begun to teach, the idea that keeping all of the 613 laws of the Torah was impossible had become widespread among Jews, and some speculated that the impossibility of keeping the Law perfectly was part of the point of the Law, for it showed that all people are completely dependent upon God. Knowing that should make one humble, and ready to forgive others, and themselves. However, some, like the Pharisees, took these ideas in the opposite direction, and devised an extensive code of behavior to make breaking one of the biblical laws less likely. For them, perfection was just around the corner, and the awed respect of many ordinary people encouraged them to pursue that perfection at any cost.
“Jesus, of course, was familiar with both of these schools of thought. In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out a vision that is informed by them, and responds to them, and transcends them. It sounds like Jesus is one-upping the most stringent of the Pharisees by condemning not just actions that could lead to breaking a law, but also the thoughts and the feelings that could lead to such an act. It sounds hopeless. Most people will make it through life without taking the life of another, but who among us will avoid getting angry, making an insult, or feeling disrespect for somebody else? We may accept that we shouldn’t do these things and comfort ourselves by saying “I didn’t really hurt them.” We may even congratulate ourselves for our self-control.
“But Jesus knew that evil actions don’t come out of the blue; they come out of human hearts. (If you remember, I’ve said several times that I don’t like the advice to “Follow your heart” – this is why; our hearts are not particularly trustworthy guides). And it’s an awful lot easier to harm another person if you already think or feel that they are less worthy of respect or consideration than you are. (Incidentally, that is why it’s not just “love your neighbor,” but “love your neighbor as yourself.”) But the one who made us all and the one through whom we were made know perfectly well that we are all equally, fully human. When we dehumanize another person, even if they are unaware of our feelings towards them, we not only injure our own souls, we also damage the fabric of Creation, creating a rift where God intended continuity.”1
And so Jesus, who so many look toward to make life easier, today makes life harder, or so it seems.
“Jesus sets out God’s vision for humanity, and of course it is quite above our ability to achieve. That’s why those lofty standards are presented interwoven with powerful words of forgiveness and reconciliation. The God whose respect for us allows us to make mistakes (He knows we are sinful) is the same God whose love for us brings us forgiveness and healing.”2 He offers us a way to wholeness and peace.
The way to wholeness and peace is not an easy road, because it is the road to the Cross. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and if we are to follow Him, that means that sometimes He will lead us to places we would rather not go. At Jesus’ feet we must admit to ourselves and to Him our sins and offensives; our unwillingness to forgive others and see everyone as being made in the image of God; at His feet we must confront our fear of being less-than, of being unworthy.
No, we can’t measure up to the 613 laws Jesus came to fulfill, nor can we trust our hearts to leads us in paths of righteousness. But we can trust in Jesus, who has measured up, who is our righteousness, and who’s grace and love will never fail us.
1Fr. Bret Hays, from a sermon given on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 2014.