The New Covenant is a Law that God Writes on the Heart
- It once happened that two sinners visited a holy man and asked his advice. ” We have done wrong, ” they said, ” And our consciences are troubled. What must we do to be forgiven?”
The holy and pious man responded,” tell me of your wrongdoing, my sons.” The first man said,” I committed a great and grievous sin.” The second man said: ” I have done some small things, nothing much to worry about.”
The holy and pious man responded, “Okay, go and bring me a stone for each sin.” The first man came back with a BIG STONE. The second man brought a bag of small stones. ” Now”, said the holy man, ” Go and put them back where you found them.” The first man lifted the rock and struggled back to the place where he had gotten it. The second man could not remember where half of the stones belonged, so he gave up, it was like too much work.
The holy and pious man further said, “Sins are like these stones.” If man commits a great sin, it is like a heavy stone on his conscience, but with true sorrow, it is removed completely. But the man who is constantly committing small sins which he knows to be wrong, gets hardened to them and feels no sorrow. So he remains a sinner,” continued the holy man. ‘
So you see my sons, it is important to avoid little sins just as the big ones. Big sins and little sins are the same. They are all sins.”
- A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.”But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. “Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
In this story we see how the mayor of New York City maintains & defends the laws under his jurisdiction, not by merely keeping them himself, but much more than that by showing respect, even to the accused and being compassionate to her and helping her out at the same time.
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE GOD AND HIS COMMANDMENTS:
The First Reading of today from the Book of Sirach invites us to take every advantage to make the right choices in life. We have free will to do it. The reading begins with Sirach’s straight forward announcement that God’s commandments have the saving power and those who trust in the Lord shall live. Then Sirach shows our choices using terms that are polar opposites. We can choose fire and water, life and death, good or evil. But just so we see things in the proper perspective, he reminds us that God in his immense wisdom and great power has created everything with a certain pattern or organization to it. He further motivates us to make the right choice by stating that God’s eyes are on those who fear him. It is a strong image that reminds us that we cannot conceal our thoughts and actions from God. He adds emphatically that God does not command people to act unjustly or give them license to sin. But then that choice will be ours.
GOD’S WISDOM IS CENTERED ON CHRIST CRUCIFIED:
In today’s Second Reading from his 1st Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul continues his theme of wisdom and refers to the knowledge of understanding God’s wisdom, mysterious and hidden. He is profoundly irritated at their factionalism and selfishness and he appeals to the Corinthians to engage God’s wisdom to remove them from their midst. God’s wisdom is centered on Christ crucified, the Lord of glory. This wisdom God has made known since before the beginning of time… God’s wisdom has been made known through the Spirit. To those who are receptive, the Holy Spirit will reveal the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. It will be a real surprise to learn what God has prepared for those who love him.
Coming to our readings, our today’s Gospel is still part of the Sermon of the Mount by Jesus. The Sermon of the Mount some say is a summary of Jesus’ teachings. Today’s passage from chapter 5 highlights our internal thoughts and desires and stresses their moral consequences for good and evil.
The first Christians were all Jews. In the beginning they continued to observe many of their traditional customs e.g. about circumcision, about clean and unclean food. They went to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But very soon, non-Jews (Gentiles) also became Christians and these did not have to observe some of the traditions of the Jews. But the Jewish Christians felt uncomfortable about this. When they became Christians did they have to abandon traditions, which were so much part of both their religious and social life? It became a very serious issue in the Apostolic Church.
Matthew’s Gospel, from which today’s passage comes, was written primarily for Jewish Christians and today’s reading – and indeed the whole of this Gospel – can be seen as words of encouragement for them. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew constantly uses the Old Testament to show that the life of Jesus is not a breakaway from past Jewish traditions but that it is a continuation of all that was foretold by the prophecies of the Hebrew Testament. The life and teaching of Jesus is not to be seen as a new religion; Jesus’ life is the natural development of the story of salvation. And Jesus is the climax of that story, because Jesus is the Messiah king and saviour for whom the Jews had been waiting for such a long time. (In that sense, our Bible is really only one book.)
The Law and Jesus….. So in today’s Gospel, Matthew emphasises the relation between Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus. Matthew reassures his readers that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to bring them to completion. So, in a sense, the Law still has force. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
On the other hand, there is much in Jesus’ teaching that is completely new. He did not abolish the Law but he introduced a completely new way of thinking. He did not abolish or change the Law but went far beyond its literal requirements. For Jesus, just to keep the Law externally is not enough. To be a disciple of Christ, the foundation of our lives must go deeper – to a mutual love. To keep the Law without love is like having a body without a soul. Literally to keep the Law of God and of the Church is not the same as being a good disciple of Jesus. “If your virtue goes no deeper than the Scribes and the Pharisees [who were perfect observers of the letter of the Law], then you will never enter the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says today.
The Scribes and the Pharisees kept the Law and the Commandments very carefully. But Jesus would say that, though they observed the external requirements of the Law, they did not have the spirit which is the foundation of the Law: to love God and to love the neighbour as oneself. Clearly, this teaching would have made much more impact on a Jewish audience but, even in our Christian lives, it is possible for people to have a very mechanical notion of what is good behaviour. This is revealed often in the way we “go to confession”.
Six examples…… To help us understand his meaning Jesus gives six striking examples and, in today’s Gospel, we have four of them. In these four examples Jesus helps us to understand that, to be one of his disciples, it is not enough simply to keep what the Law tells us to do. We do not keep the Law through our behaviour but through our basic attitudes, our basic values.
When the Pharisees kept the Law they wanted to obey God but very often they neglected the needs of others. It was their own “perfection” they were mainly concerned about (just as we can be exclusively concerned about being in a “state of grace”). Even now, some people in confession are sorry because their sins offend God or are instances of personal failure but often they show little awareness of how their sins hurt other people.
For Jesus, we cannot separate our relationship with God and our relationship with people. If we cannot find God in our brothers and sisters, we cannot say that we really love God. “As often as you did not do it to them, you did not do it to me.” Or in the words of the First Letter of John: “If you refuse to love, you must remain dead; to hate your brother is to be a murderer” (1 John 3:15).
Do not kill…… The first example from the Law that Jesus gives is, “Do not kill.” But Jesus says we must not even get angry or use insulting words with others. What Jesus is saying is that we must deeply respect the dignity and rights of every person, a person who is unconditionally loved by God and for whom Jesus will sacrifice his life. And if we do not respect our brothers and sisters deep within our heart, we cannot say we respect God. So if I am going to the Temple to pray (a religious act of worship) and I remember I have offended someone, I should go and reconcile with my brother first and only then make my offering in the Temple. Otherwise, my prayers and offering are of no real value.
Life and worship cannot be separated: each influences the other. Yet, how often do we piously go to Mass when we have deeply hurt another person and need to reconcile with him or her? We cannot say we love Jesus if we are hurting others.
That is the meaning of the sign of peace which we share with others before sharing in the communion. And, where possible, it would be great to make a point of giving the sign of peace sincerely to a person with whom we have a problem, a person we may criticise or dislike, or someone who is a foreigner or a complete stranger. If we cannot do this, we may question the genuineness and integrity of our communion.
Do not commit adultery…… “You must not commit adultery.” Adultery occurs when there are sexual relations between two people, of whom at least one is already married. In Jewish Law there were very serious penalties for this. We remember the woman who was brought to Jesus to be stoned to death, because that was what the Law demanded. Jesus, however, says you can commit adultery in your thoughts (and nobody knows about it – except you).
Again Jesus is saying that, apart from our external actions, our basic attitude is paramount. We cannot just use another person just as an object to give us pleasure. We cannot use another person like a toy. When that happens both are degraded. Real love is completely different. Real respect is completely different. And adultery is wrong not so much because it is a sexual act outside marriage but because it is an act of serious injustice to the innocent married partner and seriously injures the marriage relationship. It is a serious breach of trust and fidelity.
No divorce…… The Law also says, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” In Jesus’ time, it was relatively easy to divorce. If a husband became sexually attracted to another woman, he could just make an official declaration that he was divorcing his wife. It could be for very trivial reasons. She could do nothing. She had no say in the matter.
It was legal but, according to Jesus, it was against the dignity and the rights of the wife. It was legal but it was both selfish and unjust. It was legal but also immoral. For Jesus, it is not enough for something to be legal. It must also be good. It must also be an expression of love and justice. That is something we need to remember. Immoral acts are not less moral because they do not happen to be against the law or because I am no longer a practising Catholic.
It would seem that Jesus is dealing here with divorce for selfish reasons. In our time, divorce is often the result of a marriage having irretrievably broken down. In Jesus’ time, love or happiness had very little to do with marriage. It was governed by the laws and by tradition and was seen primarily as the bringing together of two families with the purpose of producing heirs. The matter is more complex in our own time and we have also to distinguish between obtaining a civil divorce (which Catholics can do) and having a second sacramental marriage (which, under the present legislation, Catholics may not do). And there are other issues involved in the question of divorce but they are dealt with more fully when we deal with the question on the 27th Sunday, Year B.
No false swearing…… “Don’t swear falsely! Carry out what you vow.” It was common in Jesus’ time for people to guarantee the truth of what they said by making a solemn oath before God. Jesus’ point is that a good Christian does not have to swear at all, because a true Christian is a reliable and totally honest person. He or she is a person of integrity. Such people can be trusted when they speak. They don’t have to give external guarantees. Their ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ means exactly what is said and there are no mental reservations. It is a pleasure to meet people like that, who are totally transparent and have nothing to hide.
Catholics and the Law…… There are manyCatholics who feel that if they just keep the Commandments they are good Catholics. They often like to ask, “Is this a sin?”, that is, is it against the law? Is it a mortal sin or is it a venial sin? If it is “only” a venial sin, then I can do it.
But true Christians do not ask whether something is legal or illegal. They love God, they love Jesus, they love their brothers and sisters. Their only concern is how they can serve and love them more and more. They want to work with Jesus and with his brothers and sisters to build the Kingdom of God. No matter how much they do, they know they can still love more and do more and be more.
It is not then a question of law; it is not a question of what I have to do. It is a question of how much more I can do, how much more I want to do. The requirements of the law are way behind.
In conclusion, all the three Scripture Readings today speak about true freedom and urge us to find true wisdom. We soon come to realize in this life that the free choices we have to make to become moral people are not always black and white, like the choices Sirach uses. Freedom is an eminently Christian virtue and value. But then, life and its choices are complex. To be wise means to choose carefully what choices we make, not through blind obedience, but through thought and prayer. With Christ, there is no new standard, but there is a higher standard that places Christianity heights above the world’s measures. It is definitely harder and not just higher, because many of us have not fully understood what true freedom entails. It requires so much more discipline and regularity and only then it becomes spontaneous in the sense that we spontaneously choose Christ anytime, anyplace over anything and everything else. The meaning of spontaneity is not wild abandonment. Instead, it is a freedom to spontaneously choose God above all else. “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!”
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.