13Feb Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme

Perhaps our greatest human quality is our freedom to choose, to freely opt for quality in our lives and our relationships. The Bible sets great store on our responsibility to serve God freely, and to show loving respect towards our neighbour. This does deeper than the commandments, though they are great pointers towards what is required of us. At Mass we ask God’s help to use our freedom well, and when we make the sign of peace to others, immediately before Communion, it’s a powerful symbol of what, with God’s help, we propose to be with our neighbours. Having a generous, neighbourly spirit is the clearest sign that we belong to Him.

Readings

Sir 15:16-20. To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. This late Old Testament author adopts the Greek ideal of personal freedom, and translates it as our individual responsibility before God. The Lord has revealed his will and gives each one the grace necessary to keep it.

1 Cor 2:6-10. Our Christian trust in the saving power of the cross requires a special kind of wisdom that only comes from God; the cross of Christ is appreciated only through faith, even if human philosophy makes no sense of it.

Mt 5:17-37. The commandments given through Moses still remain valid – though Jesus gives them a deeper interpretation. We must obey the spirit, and not just the letter of the law.

{For the full text of today’s readings, scroll to the end of this file}.

Bidding Prayers

– for the grace to act faithfully, according to the will of God, as taught in the Bible, and revealed in our lives.

– that we may become reconciled with any estranged members of our families, and be peacemakers when others have quarrelled.

– that we may take to heart Jesus’s high ideals about anger and swearing, marital fidelity and generosity of spirit.

– that others may be able to rely on our understanding, and our practical help in their time of need.

Free Will and the Divided Self (John Walsh)

So says the Lord, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26). Here God, using figurative language, is addressing us from out the Old Testament about spiritual realities. I wonder how many of you recall the name Philip Blaiberg. He was the first person ever to receive a new physical heart in a transplant operation carried out by Doctor Christian Barnard, over forty years ago. He was to live a further 19 months, but during all that time his entire body instinctively, vehemently, and ceaselessly fought to reject the implanted heart, even though without it he had no hope of survival.

This struggle is a picture often of the way our divided yet real self strives to resist the life of Christ in us, the new heart he wants to create in us, that inner spiritual life-source which we too need so absolutely. To allow the vitality and power of Jesus become part of us involves pain, and darkness, and mortification, and purification, not because Jesus wants to inflict suffering on us, but because the impure and evil elements of our sinful nature do not want to be transformed. “Lord make me pure,” Augustine before his conversion used to pray, “but not yet.” It was a hard struggle before grace prevailed. The great difference, however, between the reaction of the body to an organ transplant, and this reluctance to put Christ at the centre of our lives, is that you only have to make up your mind finally to follow where God wants to lead you, and it is within your power to travel that path.

The first reading states quite clearly that each person has free will. God does not force his commandments on us, neither is he responsible for the evil which exists in the world. As the reading says in such a thought-provoking and rather frightening way, “Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better, will be given him.” In other words everyone decides the way his
her soul shall go. St Paul, in the second reading, says that the weakness and the foolishness of the Cross were the things that God chose for his Son. And even though these things are a greater stumbling block than ever for our present-day culture, the Cross, nevertheless, is the only way to arrive at all that God has prepared for those who love him.

God’s claim to obedience, so well exemplified for us in the person of Jesus Christ, is an absolute, total demand, claiming the whole person, not only in outward action but in one’s inner attitudes, in one’s heart. So not only is it wrong to cause bodily injury to another; we must not even harbour evil intent, or anger, or contempt against others. This sharpening of the demands of the law, to the point of the seemingly impossible, must have caused dismay among Christ’s listeners at the Sermon on the Mount. And when Jesus went on to say that not only must they not commit adultery, but that it was possible, by lustful looks alone, to commit adultery in the heart, then the surprise and astonishment among his Jewish audience must have been overwhelming.

But what Jesus was saying was that the entertainment of lustful thoughts betokens an interior attitude of extreme selfishness, an attitude which tends to regard another person as an object, a means, of satisfying one’s own inordinate and sinful cravings for self-gratification, and that this stands in absolute contrast to the loving desire and respect for each other which those in holy wedlock should have. People outside marriage, and sometimes even married couples, often cite love as a reason for setting aside all moral restraints in their relationship. But, on the contrary, it is a fact that true love does impose restraints, the restraints of consideration for, and respect for, and regard for the dignity and the happiness of the person loved.

Is Jesus demanding the impossible in asking us to extend the constraints of the moral law to our thoughts and imagination also? Is St Paul indeed, when he says, “In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5)? The answer would be yes, it is impossible, but for the saving grace which Jesus is always ready to offer us, to help us attain these ideals. “In Christ all things are possible.” For he is the one who is our advocate with the Father, the one who pleads with sighs too deep for words, that our sins may be wiped away, and that the holiness and purity of God may shine forth in all we are and do.

Christianity – a new way of living (Henry Wansbrough)

The wealth of material in the second and third readings makes it difficult to choose a theme, but one possible approach would be to take the corrections of the Old Law as examples of Jesus’ approach to morality,” not so much for their individual material as for the attitude which they inculcate.

The first (as the sixth, which is read next week) is about love, and in this case rules out negative expressions of love (as the sixth will enjoin the complete positive expression of love.) Jesus forbids here not merely the most extreme form of disregard of the value of another person, in killing him, but also lesser forms of injuring another. What unites the three faults of losing one’s temper with another, of contemptuously calling him names and of refusing to forgive him is that in each case the humanity of another person and his feelings are trampled underfoot. The importance of forgiveness is shown by the fact that it in a way takes precedence even over strictly religious duties, and presumably the same degree of priority is to be awarded to the other two matters. So in this case the correction which Jesus makes is that one must respect not simply the legal right to live but also those things which enable someone to live a full life and one of self-respect.

The second correction is strictly on sexual purity, but the principle given is of far wider application, concerning purity of intention in general. A mere legalism which is content when one has not actually committed a crime is utterly insufficient. The violent preventative action of self mutilation has never been understood literally by the Church – particularly not in the case of Origen’s self-castration to avoid sexual sins – and is best understood as a parable to express vividly the disastrous effects of sin.

The third correction simply disallows an abuse which was tolerated by the law, that of remarriage after divorce. The exceptive clause has, of course, been a matter of much controversy, but the interpretation which is both philologically most acceptable and the only one consonant with the practice of the Catholic Church is that the word translated here “fornication” in fact means “a marriage prohibited by Jewish laws.” The only divorce permitted is one where there is no real marriage, and the correction becomes – as in its original context – a reaffirmation of the sanctity and closeness of the marriage bond, as pronounced in Genesis “the two shall become one flesh” that is one thinking, planning, loving entity.

The fourth correction has not been taken by the Catholic Church (though it has by some other Christians) literally as a prohibition of oaths. It seeks rather to teach that oaths should not be necessary at all. If there is in general an atmosphere of trust and truth-telling the reinforcement provided by oaths is not needed. This it is an atmosphere of openness and mutual confidence which is inculcated. In short what Jesus teaches by his corrections of the Law is merely a matter of honouring to the full the human values which we find it so difficult to honour.

Making good choices (Martin Hogan)

The first reading suggests the importance of human choice as a theme for a homily. It has been said that we do not make big choices, only a whole series of little ones. The fundamental choice in life according to our first reading is that between fire and water, life and death. That fundamental choice finds concrete expression in the multiple choices of daily life. Each day we try to make choices which are life-giving both for ourselves and others. In the complexities of daily living it is not always easy to discover the way which leads to life. In retrospect, we often realise that we have made bad choices, even though, at the time, we acted in good faith. Both the first and second readings speak about the wisdom of God. We need that wisdom to choose well, a wisdom which comes through the Spirit. Paul reminds us that “the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.” It is the Spirit who enables us to choose “in depth,” to make the kind of choices which are most in tune with what is deepest in us and, therefore more life-giving.

Choices which come from what is deepest and best in us will be life-giving, both for ourselves and others. In the gospel reading, Jesus proposes a virtue which goes deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, a virtue in depth, from the heart. If our depths are sound, if the heart is good, then the choices which come from the heart will be good. The converse is also true. If we harbour bitterness in our heart towards someone, we will inevitably make choices which damage and hurt them. If we cultivate envy in our heart towards someone, we will tend to make choices which devalue them. Beyond our behaviour lie our choices and beyond them lies the heart in which our choices are rooted. Only the Spirit who reaches the depths of God can really reach our own depths. It is the Spirit who renews and transforms our heart. “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom 5:5.) If we keep on opening our hearts to the Spirit of God’s love they will be recreated in his love. Then our choices will be rooted in love and will have something of the life-giving quality of Jesus himself.

Sign Of Peace (Liam Swords)

“In just over two hours from now, Nelson Mandela will be released from prison.” That is howl began this homily, when I first preached it in Paris on this Sunday the year Mandela was released. He had then been in prison for longer than most of my young congregation had been born, and longer than I had been a priest. His prison silence resounded all over the world. For twenty-seven long years he was not allowed to communicate with the outside world. And yet, his message reached everywhere. Largely due to this one silent victim the system of apartheid was brought to an end. There is a moral here for all of us. Nowadays people labour under the impression that the individual is powerless to change the system. Yet Mandela and history teaches us that this is not so. Even this century has produced individuals like Mahatma Ghandi in India, Martin Luther King in the United States and Andrei Sakharov in Russia, who have done just that.

It is a strange thing about prophets that they never seemed fated to see the promised land. It was the case with Moses who led his people out of slavery in Egypt but died within sight of the promised land. Most have followed a similar pattern. Both Ghandi and Martin Luther King were assassinated before their missions were completed. Sakharov came close but he too died before many of the great changes took place in his country. Mandela was seventy when he was released from prison where he had spent a little less than half his life. He too seemed destined to follow the same course. But he has survived.

It seems almost as if God had another mission for him to accomplish, perhaps even more difficult than the destruction of apartheid, the reconciliation of South Africans. It is an awesome task. He has to reconcile himself with his former gaolers who took away more than twenty-seven of the best years of his life. He has to reconcile his black compatriots with their former white masters. So far, he has made a good beginning. Just five years later, as President of South Africa he attended the opening match of the Rugby World Cup being held there for the first time. He rejoiced in the victory of South Africa over the defending champions, Australia. There was only one black player on the field and he was in the Australian squad. It was a reminder to Mandela, though he hardly needed a reminder, of how thoroughly the system of apartheid had done its job and how hard reconciliation was going to be.

There are areas in all our lives which cry out for reconciliation. There are neighbours who are not on speaking terms and sometimes for years. Even within families, brothers and sisters have fallen out and refuse to make up. Some disputes go so far back, that nobody remembers now what exactly caused them. Yet many carry these ancient grudges with them to the church on Sundays and all the way up to the altar. Which is why the Vatican Council reintroduced the sign of peace into the Mass and placed it just before Communion. It is a symbol of reconciliation. When you shake hands with the person beside you in the pew, you are making up with your alienated neighbour. If you can’t stretch out your hand in reconciliation to him, you can’t stretch it out to receive Christ in Communion.

So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.

Not like Animal Farm (Jack McArdle)

Today’s gospel contains five teachings of Jesus, on law, anger, adultery, divorce, and vows. Without wishing to abuse the truth, I recall in general, the main thrust of a book called Animal Farm by George Orwell. There were no rules, no laws, nobody in positions of authority and responsibility. This was to be Utopia, where everything would go along, as things should be, and nobody would dream of upsetting or rocking the boat, and everybody would live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t turn out that way. Although the story is about animals, the point of the story is that, without structures, without rules to guide behaviour, without somebody taking responsibility to animate and lead the group, we also can descend into anarchy and self-destruction.

Jesus doesn’t want to do away with the law; rather he wants to fulfil it. He does not, however, want the law to become an end in itself. The law is there to serve the people, to guide and protect them, and it must not be used to control them and to oppress them. A man is in court for doing ninety miles an hour through a fifty-mile zone. He has broken a good law, which was put in place to protect, rather that to oppress people. Jesus tells us that all law comes from God and, therefore, for a law to be valid, it must be made for the common good. Jesus is more in favour of a law of love, rather than a love of law.

Whether his teaching has to do with anger, adultery, divorce, etc., what he is really speaking about has to do with love. He lays great stress on forgiveness. That’s a powerful word, when he speaks of bringing your gift to the altar, and then you remember that there’s someone out there hurting because of you. Leave your gift to one side, go off and be reconciled with that person, and then come back to offer your gift. If we speak about loving God and loving our neighbour, then there must not be any contradiction here. It would surely be a contradiction to be reciting lovely prayers to God, while I’m not speaking to my neighbour. “Whatever you do to the least of these, that’s what you do onto me.”

He is clear and definite when it comes to giving one’s word. There’s no need for solemn oaths, etc., if I am a person of my word. This was important to Jesus. “You are either for me or against me. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.”” He himself is emphatic about the sincerity of his promises to us. He gives his word, and he says that “heaven and earth will pass away before my word passes away.” It is difficult to speak about adultery or divorce. I don’t imagine any couple who got married with the intention of getting a divorce later on. I credit them with the highest and best intentions and, as can easily happen, things just don’t work out the way they had hoped. No alcoholic ever set out to become an alcoholic. This was something that crept up on him, as it were. Adultery can be wrong on grounds other than morality and sex. It can be a lie, because it can imply a commitment that is not there, and that one party, at least, has no intention of there ever being a commitment. The whole subject of today’s gospel has to do with honesty, integrity, and genuine love.

A sin is a sin. If God wanted a permissive society he would have given us Ten Suggestions instead of Ten Commandments. Having grown up in a church, which had a preoccupation with sin that was bordering on the unhealthy, there is now a danger of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction, to the other extreme, where we lose all sense of sin. I believe that the law of God is written in our hearts in such a way that we know rightly whenever we are wrong.

We sometimes hear the saying “My word is my bond.” It is good to be a person of your word. One of the most insightful comments of Jesus is that “the truth will set you free.” The liar has to have a good memory! The facts are always friendly, because they never change. There is a saying of much wisdom which states that “When everything else fails, try the truth, because it always works.” The essence of proper communication is to combine total honesty with total kindness. There are times when total honesty can be brutally destructive, and when total kindness can be totally dishonest. It’s quite a struggle to get it right. It is an extraordinary gospel principle to strive to become authentic, to become genuine, to live and to speak the truth. Because original sin had to do with a lie, the antidote, the antibiotic for that is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls “The Spirit of Truth.”

Sin, by definition, is a lie. Whether it is adultery, perjury, or self-righteous adherence to law, it can masquerade as virtue, as truth, as something other than the reality. Sin is not so much an act as the reason or motive behind the act. I could visit someone in hospital today because I feel sorry for him; or I could visit him because I want to rejoice in the fact that he is suffering. I could do the same thing for different reasons.

I must confess to being caught in a bind with today’s gospel. It contains clear and definite teaching from Jesus, so that must surely merit our full intention. However, I cannot bring myself to proclaim any blanket condemnation of adultery, divorce, etc., and that bothers me in a way. Over the years I have known people who have been divorced, involved in adulterous relationships, etc., and I have known them to be good people. It is difficult to condemn the sin without running the risk of judging and condemning the sinner. Most people that I know are quite aware of what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t think you can legislate morality. There is an in-built barometer in the human spirit that instinctively informs us when we’re right or wrong. The biggest lies I tell in life are the ones I tell myself. I will never be honest with you or with anyone else until I become honest with myself.

The Christian life is a sign that should be seen from far and near. It is a sign of contradiction, of course, in that it insists there is another way of living than living with the values of a materialistic world. The only way to preach this message is to live it. “You write a new page of the gospels each day, by the things that you do, and the words that you say. People read what you write, whether faithful or true. What is the gospel according to you?’

First Reading: Sirach 15:15-20

If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water;stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death,and whichever one chooses will be given. For great is the wisdom of the Lord;he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him,and he knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,and he has not given anyone permission to sin.

Second Reading: First Epistle to the Corinthians 2:6-10

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37

or, shorter version: 5:20-22, 27-28, 33-34

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you,unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


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