6th Sunday of ordinary time
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. [Matt 5:20]
Some time ago I was watching the news, and a young woman was being interviewed and she was explaining her moral system to the world. She proposed with no shame that just because a married man watches pornography on the Internet, or conducts an immoral affair with another woman over the Internet, does not mean he is committing adultery – no one thinks that, she said. I was waiting for the other woman, a good Christian lady to reply, “except for Jesus Christ that is.” But that reply never came, and then I realized she was probably a Catholic and might not be all that well versed in the Scriptures. How I wished she had been a bible protestant believer that day!
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus preaching a number of things that will drive a modern relativist crazy. Jesus warns that even our anger can make us liable to God’s judgement, and He says that really abusive language can land one in hell, make one “liable to fiery Gehenna.” He also says that one who marries a divorced woman is guilty of adultery, no exceptions given, and that the man who divorces his wife bears the guilt of his divorced spouse’s adultery should she attempt a second marriage. That is Jesus, the beloved speaking not some crazed modern preacher.
In between his warning about anger and divorce, he speaks about the seriousness of lust in the heart. Jesus states quite clearly that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is quite consistent with His moral teaching where he teaches that all morality has it’s roots in the human heart. Jesus insists, unlike the Pharisees’ teaching, that all sin originates in the human heart – which means in the soul, in man’s thoughts and free choices, just as does every act of human virtue. It is not just the external physical act, like murder, that is sinful, but the act of hate that originates in the human heart and leads to murder. This internal act of hate, if chosen freely, can be equivalent to the act of murder, just as the internal act of lust for a married woman, if freely chosen and entertained, is equivalent to the external act of adultery. God forbids both sins the internal one and the external one. Thus any man who lusts after a woman in his heart, or vice versa, has already committed a serious sin against the 6th commandment: either adultery in the heart, or fornication in the heart.
One of the reasons Jesus came into conflict with certain Scribes and Pharisees was precisely because he demanded a moral life that went beyond merely avoiding doing sinful external actions. Jesus taught that the moral life is deeply rooted in the human person’s heart because the human person is more than a body. Moral good and moral evil are not to be identified with just the external acts of man. Good and evil originate first and more fundamentally in the human heart, the inner sanctuary of man’s soul, in the thoughts and choices of the human will. If there in this inner sanctuary man chooses to do evil, his will has already embraced the evil chosen, and it has by that fact alone, by that free choice, committed a true sin, even if the external act is never carried out. So the human person is made either good or evil in the first place by the act of his free will, and in the second instance by his external acts carrying that choice into action.
Many scribes and pharisees, on the other hand, like the young lady on the evening news, and so many other people today, restrict the moral life to the purely external world, external actions, and they do not understand the true origins of good and evil in the human soul. Thus they not only end up with a very shallow morality, but they likewise become blind to the real depths of the human person, the transcendent nature of the human soul and human freedom.
Jesus truly understands the depths of the human soul and the human person (Jn. 2:24), and thus he teaches a morality that is fundamentally located in the interior of man’s soul, in his human mind and human freedom. That is the first reason he warned us in today’s Gospel that our moral life must not remain on the surface of human nature and activity: I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
However, when Jesus said our moral goodness, our holiness, must surpass that of the scribes and pharisees , he was not just speaking about the moral life alone. Nor was Jesus suggesting that the moral life of all Scribes and Pharisees was somehow evil. That would make his statement about surpassing their holiness a trite statement of what is obvious. What Jesus was suggesting was not that all their moral lives were evil, but that their approach to the moral life did not go far enough. Christians have to go beyond simply avoiding evil external acts. They must likewise avoid evil thoughts, desires and intentions that arise in the human soul. Christian morality, the true human morality, has to embrace the interior man as well as his external actions. Man must be pure of heart.
Finally, the Christian life and holiness Jesus speaks about us surpassing all others does not simply include the moral life. True, our moral life must surpass the moral system of the Scribes and Pharisees, but holiness involves much more than the moral life. The Scribes and Pharisees taught that man’s holiness was basically something produced through his own actions – we make ourselves holy by leading a good life of moral and religious observances.
Jesus, on the other hand, taught that holiness was not simply the result of the good moral life for the moral life itself was made possible by the holiness that was not the product of man’s activity, but of God’s. In short, holiness is not simply being a good moral person, but it is the State of Grace, that is, a true gift that we first receive from God, by faith and Baptism. Holiness descends upon us from above, and it is a form of supernatural life. It is in fact God’s life descending upon man as a gift from God. Thus holiness is fundamentally something supernatural, nor natural, and that is why we cannot produce it ourselves, but only receive it as gift, and only secondarily, and afterwards, merit this gift by our good deeds. Indeed without grace we will not be able to integrally fulfill even the moral law, and thus be able also to merit this supernatural gift (sorry, but the paradox always remains). Grace enables us to fulfill the moral law and thus to merit further graces. Thus, once again we can see what Jesus means when he says: I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The moral life and holiness then are to be understood as something beyond mere human nature and it’s capacities to do good things. The Scribes and Pharisees did not understand that holiness was something truly supernatural, nor did they understand that the moral life is fundamentally something that has it’s deepest origins with man. That’s why they thought they could fulfill the moral law by their own free will – because for them it meant just avoiding the sinful external action. But if morality is extended to the depths of the human heart, it becomes obvious how impossible it is for fallen man to completely fulfill the law of God.
The Psalms teach us what a torturous thing the human heart is, and what great depths there are to man. It’s clear that if the moral life reaches into those depths, then man clearly needs help from above , lots of help, just to be good, let alone be holy. But we do believe that God has given us this help, precisely by giving us a share in his holiness, and it is this gift of grace that gives us the hope that, with such grace, we can, after all, live the life Jesus proposes in the Sermon on the mount, and acquire a holiness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, the holiness necessary for us to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
That is the reason we come back to this sacred place week after week. We know we need to be nourished from this altar with the Bread of Life. For we know just how far the holiness demanded for the kingdom of heaven surpasses our human nature and our capacity to lead a good moral life. And so, we come to drink from the source of holiness, to receive His grace and power so we can continue the struggle to live as he commands us in the Sermon on the Mount. Without this sacred banquet we would indeed be hopeless, and our best efforts to be holy would be futile. Only He can give us the grace necessary to enter his Kingdom with the holiness of God. Praise be Jesus Christ in whom dwells every good gift in Heaven and on the Earth, and in whom, as Paul says, God has prepared for us the kingdom and it’s glory, “which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him.“