February 23, 2014
This Sunday’s gospel reading is taken from the section in Matthew’s Gospel that came to be called the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). Matthew summarizes the teaching of Jesus on a variety of life issues such as anger, adultery, retaliation, almsgiving, prayer, money, judging others, and discipleship. Jesus teaches us how to respond to those who do us evil. He tells us to love them, and to pray for those who persecute us. The radical teaching of Jesus and its actualization in his own life creates a crisis of decision. Each person who hears this gospel must decide whether or not to trust Jesus when he says that an apparently foolish act of love is stronger than any act of evil. If we live in the wisdom of Jesus, we can be certain that we are children of the heavenly Father because love is the nature of divine life. If we only love those who love us in a kind of business deal, that is not to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. There must be a family likeness.
When we hear the cost of Christian discipleship, our spontaneous reaction probably sounds something like this: “Lord, you’re going too far. Asking us to live like that would make people think of us as fools.” That kind of reaction means that we have heard Jesus correctly. We tend to ignore the foolishness of Christ’s teaching about discipleship. Saint Paul does not: he acknowledges the foolishness of the gospel he preaches, almost as an essential characteristic of its authenticity. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Why does Paul say that “Christ crucified” is an obstacle to believers and foolishness to reasonable people? The answer touches upon the essential revelation of the gospel: God, the heavenly Father, is love. Jesus, his only Son, perfect image of the Father, can only be love, even to giving up his life on a cross. This human, free act of giving up his life even for those killing him appears foolish because it is so contrary to our deepest human instinct to preserve our own life by whatever means – more violence, retaliation, possessions, power, money than those who are in hostile competition with us to stay alive. A third-century graffito scratched on a stone wall of a house in Rome ridicules Christians by depicting a figure on a cross with the head of a jackass!
By our own fragile freedom and strength we cannot liberate ourselves from the prison of self-love and the fear of death. It is only through accepting the gift of sharing in the freedom and strength of the Risen Christ that we can live as children of God in love. The Letter to the Hebrews (2:15) neatly summarizes this good news: “The Son of God became blood and flesh to free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.” Liberated from the fear of death, our deepest instinct to live is fulfilled by receiving the gift of sharing in the eternal life of God.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gives us random examples of what it would mean to love one another simply because we are begotten of God, and God is love. His purpose is to reveal the secret power of love, thus freeing each of us to imagine our own unique ways of love in the particular circumstances of our own life. It is possible to go beyond the reasonable, good boundaries of quid pro quo business relations to experience the miracle of receiving a gift and being a gift for others. This is the grace of the Eucharist that we pray for today: to be like God, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect in love.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.