February 16, 2014
This lengthy excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount echoes the note struck in last Sunday’s gospel where Matthew urged us to seek a more spiritual and personal ideal of moral behavior. Being keenly aware of the more conservative and traditional Jewish Christians in his community at Antioch, he defends their respect for the Mosaic Law and makes it clear that he does not in any sense reject the wisdom expressed there.
However, Matthew is also aware that some scribes and Pharisees have emphasized only and eternal and material observance of that Law. And so he urges us to go beyond such inadequate observance because it represents, in a sense, a conversion of the hands and not the heart. The gospel passage of this Sunday then gives us two examples of how a merely external observance falls short of the ideal offered by Jesus.
In the case of murder, he points out that it is not just the act that is reprehensible but that the sin is present already in the hatred that often leads to murder. In a similar manner, viewing another person as a sexual object is so demeaning that it is already a serious sin, even if it does not actually lead to adultery.
The ideal expressed in this gospel passage reminds us that external religious observance, though certainly important, will never suffice to make us authentic followers of Christ. It is relatively easy to observe rituals and to affirm doctrines but, unfortunately, such observance can easily co-exist with an interior attitude that is judgmental and unforgiving. As the gospel reminds us, reconciliation with the alienated people in our lives (and often families) is more important than meticulous, or even scrupulous, religious observance.
What is required then is an interior conversion that recognizes one’s own shortcomings and is thus prepared to allow others to be imperfect also. What is most important, however, is an attitude of loving kindness that enables us to notice how others are hurting and which gladly reaches out to them, not because they deserve our help, but simply because they are in need and our hearts are sensitive to the fact. To love in this way is to be a child of that God who certainly loves us more than we deserve. As such, we will also be true followers of Jesus as we make his love present in our world.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.