The Torment of St Anthony, Michelangelo c.1487-1488
First reading Ecclesiasticus 15:16-21
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 118(119):1-2,4-5,17-18,33-34
Second reading 1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Gospel Matthew 5:17-37
The Gospel today continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with the intention of completing or perfecting the Law of Moses. We hear first that sin is not just the committing of certain bodily acts such as killing or adultery, but begins in the heart, where anger, lust and any number of corrupt thoughts first take root in us and elicit either our assent or our rejection. The prime battle ground for the Christian, then, lies in the heart and mind. For it is there that the seeds of sin first spring up and take root, and it’s there that we first become enslaved and lose our internal freedom to choose the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
Herein lies the meaning of our Lord’s words, “if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees simply kept the law to the letter, which is called self-righteousness. For this is a righteousness that can be attained by one’s own careful adherence to the rules. But this doesn’t necessarily equal virtue or holiness, which is an interior reality that must be fought for. To arrive at virtue and holiness involves getting at the root of the problem of sin in our lives, waging war within, so that we may possess ourselves and thereby allow Jesus to take up residence within us. We cannot give to him what we do not have, and if our hearts are full of unforgiveness, malice, lust, envy, pride and any number of other vices, then we do not fully possess ourselves and therefore cannot fully give ourselves. To wage this Christian warfare, dear brothers and sisters requires a number of indispensable things. First and foremost, it is primarily God’s work, which means it requires a whole lot of sanctifying grace. This is why I’m fond of reminding you that the Sacrament of Confession is absolutely essential! Confession is the ordinary means by which God wills to give us his sanctifying grace once we’ve lost it. Without this sanctifying grace, holiness and salvation itself are simply impossible. Secondly, this grace must be cooperated with. It’s not magic. It requires real effort on our part to practice the virtues (above all, charity) and to commit ourselves to daily prayer. Setting aside time daily to be with the Lord in prayer allows us to drink directly from the grace of his presence. Just as athletes need a strict training programme in order to progress, we too need to adhere to Christian discipline.
And just like athletes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian lives require a certain amount of violence. To clarify, I do not mean hurting anyone, but to have enough grunt, vehemence and vigour to choose what is right, even on the level of one’s thoughts and intentions. We all know, sometimes if feels good to harbour bad thoughts, and even to float those thoughts before others in the manner of gossip. To fantasise about this person, for example, or about how we might get back at so and so, or what we are going to say to that person when we see them next, or listing off the faults and failings of another… It can take great force to cut off such pleasurable thoughts and to turn our mind to Jesus, such that it can feel like we do violence to ourselves, in a sense. But such is the Lord’s call today, when he says with great hyperbole, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.” Now we know our Lord is speaking metaphorically here because neither your eye nor your hand can cause you to sin. They may become the means of sinning, but sin, we have already heard, is caused from within. Therefore, this violent self-mutilation our Lord speaks of here is an interior mortification. It is to keep watch over ourselves and cut off our wicked thoughts and intentions as they arise.
Now, besides the spiritual means necessary to fight the Christian fight, such as the Sacraments and our disciplines and devotions, the Lord indicates that in some cases there is an exterior circumstance that needs to be confronted. Sometimes this can be hardest of all. “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…” These are hard words. We must confront and rectify our objective situations if our offering is to be acceptable in God’s sight. Sometimes, of course, others may refuse to forgive, and we can’t always change that. However, we must do everything within our power to put right what is wrong and to confront the “elephants” in our lives if we are to have sufficient interior peace to face the inner battle.
Dear brothers and sisters, there’s so much more that can be said and explored in today’s readings, but I leave you with these considerations. Especially as we begin the season of Lent, which is particularly geared towards this Christian warfare, we would do well to think carefully about what we need to work on over the coming weeks and to make firm resolutions for confronting them.
One response to “Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)”
Thanks, Father … you’ve left no stone unturned! Bring on Lent
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