Immersed in Christ: February 16, 2020
THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF YEAR A
Hearing and Living the Word of Life
Do you think the human race needs guidance in how to live? What about yourself? Where do you look for it? Where has it led you?
The author of the Entrance Antiphon (Psalm 30) speaks in the singular, calling God “my rock of refuge, a stronghold to save me.” He asks God, “Lead and guide me.” This invites each of us to ask, ”Do I see God’s word as just guidance for the human race or the Church in general, or have I accepted it, embraced it as my personal guide, to give direction to my own individual life?”
The Opening Prayer(s) recall God has promised to “remain forever” with those who “do what is just and right.” But we have to consciously “live in your presence.” The wisdom of God’s “loving plan” for the human race “took flesh in Jesus Christ.” But what “changed human history” was “his command of perfect love.” If we accept to live “perfect love” we will “reflect God’s wisdom” to all around us and “bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
We Can Choose
Sirach 15:15-20 tells us it is our choice. We can choose to keep God’s command of perfect love or not. We can choose life or death — for ourselves and our society. Scripture promises that “whichever we choose, it will be given to us.” God’s word assures us, “If you choose you can keep the commandments.” To say we can’t is a cop-out.
We can’t do it by our own strength. Jesus’ “new commandment” of perfect love is to “love one another as I have loved you.1 Who is able to do that? Even for the easier commandments, Scripture doesn’t guarantee we can keep them all immediately, just by choosing to. That goes against human experience. Even the pros don’t expect to make a touchdown on every play — or to score at all if they don’t practice.
The choice to keep the commandments is the choice to train for it.
This is the choice to be a disciple. The word “disciple” doesn’t mean “follower.” Becoming a disciple is what makes us able to become a follower. A “disciple” is a “student,” an “apprentice Christian” (even though we never actually graduate until we die).
An apprentice is a learner (cp. aprender in Spanish and aprendre in French: “to learn” both from the Latin apprehendere, to “grab.” An apprentice is someone who is trying to “get it”). Jesus gives us his “command of perfect lovc,” and we just don’t “get it.”
Not to be discouraged; the first Pope didn’t get it either when Jesus first announced it (see Matthew 16:21-23). But that is what time is for. If we just keep trying, eventually we will keep all the commandments. But — and this is extremely important — we have to consciously choose this from the outset. We have to “set our hearts” on it. If we sincerely choose the end, we will begin using the means that will enable us to achieve it. One of the first and most essential means is to begin to read the word of God. Only a fool would expect to succeed in anything without reading the instructions. But that is commonplace with us!
We Can Choose
In Matthew 5:17-37, and in all of the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus is rewriting the Ten Commandments to conform to the “law of perfect love.” He does it by changing the goal of the Commandments. Instead of teaching good human behavior that will allow communities to live together in peace, his New Law gives guidelines for living on the level of God himself. Jesus’ version of the Commandments teaches the attitudes and values of God’s own divine heart. And the assurance of Sirach — “If you choose you can keep the commandments” — although it was not meant to apply to these, is still valid, because now we have the power that comes from sharing in God’s own divine life by grace.
Scripture often speaks as if “grace” and the Holy Spirit were not given before Jesus came. They were, of course, because God “who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” was already giving people what would actually be won only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But these were not recognized or understood until the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” was proclaimed and the Spirit was made manifest at Pentecost. 2
The gift of grace (sharing in God’s divine life) is implicitly proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, because the ideals Jesus teaches there are simply beyond what human nature of itself can accept or live. If the most we can hope for is to enjoy the good life on this earth, with perhaps the continuance of essentially the same thing in some form after death, there is no motive or justification for the level of love Jesus teaches here.
Everyone condemns murder, because it disrupts society. But Jesus says we must, with our wills, at least, renounce even the anger we feel, because God does not nurse grudges. We cannot call a fool a fool, because in the eyes of God no one is just a fool. It is not enough only to refrain from harming others. Nor can we just ignore those who don’t like us. We have to seek reconciliation with anyone who holds something against us.
Why? Because God loves and seeks relationship with every person.
Later (vv. 38-42), Jesus forbids us even to defend ourselves or our property against an aggressor. Why? Because “perfect love” values others and a good relationship with others above all created things: one’s property, time, and even one’s physical life. This goes beyond the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus New Commandment is, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He revealed the essence of “perfect love” on the cross. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”3
We don’t have space to show how the whole “Sermon the Mount” translates the “command of perfect love” into concrete, daily actions.4 But today’s reading shows us Jesus transforming the morality of sex and marriage into a morality of love.
Jesus is not talking about sex. He is talking about how we should look at other persons and ourselves, and live love for both. The ideal is to respond as a whole person to whole persons. If we limit our appreciation or desire for another to just one part or aspect of what that person is, this is not perfect love. And if we want to gratify only part of what we are — some particular appetite or part of our body — that is not perfect love for ourselves. If it comes to a choice, we need to sacrifice the part for the sake of the whole rather than lose the wholeness and integrity of our being through absorption in one part.
Jesus rejected the “divorce on demand” sanctioned by the Law. Only the husband could demand it, because the wife was considered his property. And for the same reason, if one spouse had sexual relations with an unmarried person, it was adultery for the wife, but not for the husband: she was his property; he was not hers. 5 Jesus went beyond all this by changing the end (and therefore the nature) of marriage from whatever its human benefits were to the goal of growing into perfect love. This is the “steadfast love and fidelity” that is the love that defines God himself. If the spouses are learning to love, even a crucifying marriage is a success.
The Spirit Empowers
1 Corinthians 2:6-10 calls this the wisdom of the “spiritually mature,” not a wisdom “of this age.” The New Law of Jesus is something “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor the human heart conceived.” It is the level of life “God has prepared for those who love him” and want to love others with his own “perfect love.”
But we can live it. God has “revealed this wisdom to us through the Spirit,” who “scrutinizes all matters, even the depths of God.” The Responsorial (Psalm 119) says it all: Happy are they who follow the law of the Lord.”
Do you see all morality now as an effort to live on the level of God?
Read Scripture daily, trying to understand how God thinks. He is telling us.
View Today's Readings Here
1 John 13:34; 15:12.
2 1 Timothy 2:4. See John 1:14-18, 7:39; 2 Corinthians 13:14.
3 John 15:13.
4 For this see my book Make Me a Sabbath of Your Heart.
5 See Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church — Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, Liturgical Press, 2008, pp.185-187.