The Sermon on the Mount was most likely not one long discourse, but a gathering together of Jesus’ teachings. I am sure that, just as with itinerant preachers, speakers, and lecturers of today, this material recorded in Matthew was not only shared one time. Jesus probably shared different segments of these teachings at different locations throughout his ministry, and in slightly different ways depending on the group he was speaking with. Also, the Gospel writers would want to highlight different aspects of his teachings for their audiences.
As was presented yesterday, Jesus made it clear that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets but he came to fulfill them. With the beatitudes Jesus offered practical ways in which we can find fulfillment and happiness. In today’s account he introduces the first of six antithesis. With these apparent contrasting statements, Jesus is providing for his disciples the way to avoid the trap that some of the religious leadership of his time fell into: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).
Those scribes and Pharisees that Jesus was talking about were those who believed that they were following the letter of the law, but their hearts were not changed. They may have been adhering to the external provisions of the law, but were not changed themselves, their hearts were hardened, they were focused more on their own honor and power. They were also imposing strict adherence to the law without providing the support or means for others to achieve what the law imposed. The law became more important than the dignity or value of the person. Jesus recognized the law, but also realized that it was in place to help to provide guidance and discipline to resist the temptations of our fallen nature, but it was to be a foundation to be built upon, not the end goal in and of itself.
Just as children need clear boundaries and structures in place to provide a clear path toward healthy development, so this is true for those growing and maturing in their faith. We need to learn to crawl, to build strength and balance, before we can take those first wobbly steps. With continued support we are then able to walk and soon run. Jesus is not only providing the means to go through each of these stages in our faith life, figuratively teaching each of his disciples and us today to not only crawl, walk, and run, but to also be able to fly!
The Beatitudes and six antithesis are challenging, because each of them are counter to much of the way the structure of our fallen world has been governed for centuries. If we are to catch the fire that Jesus has come to set, we need not only to read, pray, meditate and contemplate on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, we need to see their relevance and practicality to our time and place today, and begin to put them into practice. As Christians our faith ought not to be shaped and informed by our culture, but we are to be shaped and conformed to the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, so to shape and inform our culture.
Today we start with the first antithesis: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, Raqa, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna (Mt 5:21-22). Anger begins in our mind from our knee jerk reaction to a perceived or actual threat, from our hearts hardened by prejudgments, prejudices, and/or a reflection of our level of spiritual immaturity.
Jesus addresses the known provision against murder. He then builds a hedge around the Torah. If one does not want to break the law, another is imposed so as to protect one from even getting close to breaking the first. If we can resist the temptations of our reactions and instead make decisions based on mindfulness and loving one another, resisting the temptation to criticize, judge, demean or dehumanize another, then we will most likely not rise to the level of murdering someone.
Jesus is saying that our words matter, they have the power to destroy or to create. Look at the example Jesus gives. He says that calling someone Raqa, Aramaic for a block head or idiot, and then calling someone a fool, would “be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Mt 5:22). Just think of how far from those two words we have fallen with the use of our language with one another. How polarized we have become as a country, the level of demeaning words, tone, and language that is condoned, supported and justified is unacceptable. This has a ripple affect that poisons our culture and society.
We then wonder why we have so much violence in our country. The vast majority of law enforcement officers put their own lives at risk every day to keep us safe, while at the same time there are those who through their own lack of effective training, fear, or prejudice have taken innocent lives, an alarming number of which are people of color. We have people that are demeaned and dehumanized for seeking asylum, they are called illegal, or worse. No person is illegal, they are our brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of God, and they may be breaking unjust laws to get here because they feel they have no other option, but if we are to follow the Gospel we are to provide aid and support to those in dire need and work to change laws that respect the dignity of persons from the womb, birth through their lives until natural death.
Our words and our actions matter. Jesus is challenging us in today’s Gospel to encourage, empower, and to respect the dignity of each person first and foremost. When we resist a pharisaical approach to the law and instead recognized the value and dignity of each person, we will have a better starting point to enact laws that are truly just. I agree with the June 13 statement of Daniel Cardinal DiNardo that: “At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life. The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection.” Using a strategy of taking away children from their parents as a deterrent is not a humane approach to immigration reform.
May we all take some time today to reflect on Jesus’ teaching about how we think, speak to and about one another, and act toward one another. May we examine our conscience and seek forgiveness for those times we have thought, condoned, or justified thoughts, words, and/or actions that have been demeaning, dehumanizing, and belittling of one another. May we ask for the support of Jesus and the infusing power of his love and mercy to live his teachings, to strive to support, empower, and accompany our brothers and sisters, and to strive to build a culture of life and dignity for all, one person and encounter at a time. May we not so much change our behavior to avoid the fire of Gehenna, but may we work toward a mature faith such that glorifies the Lord by our life, such that our hearts are burning within, moving us to stand up for one another. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.
Photo: Sun shining through the clouds of a day of overcast and rain. May the Son of God radiate from our hearts so we are a light to others today.
Thank you Jill Hanson and Fr Jim Martin for sharing Cardinal DiNardo’s statement. Full statement of Daniel Cardinal DiNardo can be found at this link:
Link for the Mass readings for Thursday, June 14, 2018: