6 Ordinary Time
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
Today we have for our Gospel text a lengthy extract from the Sermon on the Mount. From the outset, Jesus makes it clear that he does not intend to abolish the old law but to perfect it. We see from his subsequent teaching that what he intends is definitely much more difficult than that which was expected from the people up to that point.
With each segment of his teaching Jesus goes a step further than the requirements of the old law. Just take the teaching on killing. Obviously, this was forbidden by the Law of Moses but now Jesus extends it to include anger. In this context, I suppose anger means not so much the expression of the emotion of anger but actively hating another person and showing aggression towards them.
The same goes for adultery which is expanded by Jesus to include looking lustfully at someone. Of course we can see what Jesus intends by this. He wants us to be pure of heart and not just to be people who conform to the outward letter of the law. He wants us to live good and wholesome lives and not be defined by the exact wording of a particular law.
So far so good, but what do we think when it comes to the teaching about tearing out your eye or cutting off your hand. What do we think when a little lustful glance is compared to adultery or if our temporary anger is equated with murder? I don't know about you but I start to get a bit queasy at thinking about these things.
I think that we must say at this point that Jesus does not mean us to take all this wholly literally; it is actually an example of what we call Biblical hyperbole. What we are dealing with is deliberate exaggeration for effect. Jesus uses these bizarre images in order to stress the utter seriousness of his words. If his words about plucking your eye out were taken literally the world would be full of blind people. This is clearly not the intention of Jesus.
We need to realise that Hebrew was a language which was prone to using figures of speech and exaggerated images. But we have this in our own language when we say things like, 'it's raining cats and dogs.' I remember saying this to my father once. His reply was, 'Would you go out and get me a poodle!'
We also have to consider the situation of the people Jesus was talking to and the milieu in which they lived. At the time there was an elite in power who were using religion as a way of furthering their own interests and at the same time the law was considered as something laid down and which required absolute conformity. But this conformity was to the letter of the law and not to its spirit.
This led to a situation in which a culture was built up whereby all kinds of egregious breaches of morality could occur which were not covered by particular laws and yet other kinds of trivial things were treated as very serious. Jesus himself was to fall foul on more than one occasion with the regulations on what was permissible or not on the Sabbath Day.
The so-called experts in the law could also find ways around it to excuse all sorts of bad behaviour on their part while the common man was kept firmly in his place.
What Jesus is proposing is a completely different way of looking at the law. As he says, he does not want to abolish it but to fulfil it. What he is doing is bringing individual conscience into play and not depending on a series of external regulations. Jesus wants each person to develop their own moral sensibility. He wants to sensitise each person and help them to come to a true understanding of what God wants.
This is a delicate process. On the one hand we want as few external laws as possible but instead we want each person to realise how to implement the demands of justice and to act properly in the moral sphere. Each person ought to come to the realisation of what is pleasing to God rather than slavishly following a set of rules laid down by the High Priests.
The dramatic words about cutting off our hands or plucking out our eyes gets our attention and points out how absolutely necessary it is for us to do the right thing. Ultimately it is far more than our eye or our hand that is at stake, it is our eternal welfare. Doing evil in God's sight leads us on the road to hell, while following his ways takes us on the royal road to heaven. Nothing could be more serious than this.
I just want to point out how important habit is when it comes to sin. It is very easy for us to commit a new sin once, just to try it out as it were; all the time thinking that we can easily repent of it later. However, the problem is that when we go ahead and commit this sin we start to tell ourselves that it is not so serious and that no one else is suffering much as a result. It then becomes easier to commit this sin a second time.
Soon we find ourselves habituated to the particular sin and commit it over and over again without being concerned about it at all. This is a serious trap set for us by the evil one and it is very easy for us to fall into it.
The only way out is to make a determined effort to pull ourselves away from this bad habit and ask the advice of the priest in the confessional as to how to cope with it.
In the past I have often seen how people fall into this trap with things such as shoplifting and theft from the workplace. But nowadays the problem of internet pornography is becoming ever more prevalent. We might look at inappropriate websites intending it to be on one single occasion but then find that we are returning to them time after time. Before you know it, we discover that our behaviour has developed into a full scale addiction and we can't get out of the habit. The best thing, of course, is never to go there in the first place.
Sin is very prevalent in the world of today and we have to do our best to keep ourselves free from it. Of course, we will never eradicate entirely our being drawn into sin but we can work hard to keep it to a minimum.
It is good to live a life free from guilt, it is liberating to act only according to God's laws. It is life-enhancing to live a good and moral life. It is good for us and it is good for everyone around us.