The better angels of our nature

Homily for February 12, 2017 (6th Week in Ordinary Time)
Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

These past few Sundays we have been hearing Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel proclaim what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Two weeks ago, Jesus challenged us with the Beatitudes.  Last Sunday he invited us to be the salt of the earth and light for the world. Today he asks us to look at our attitude toward the Law—specifically God’s law.

We live in a society that is permeated with laws, rules and regulations.  Just think of the car or truck you drove to church today:  it was manufactured to meet certain safety and efficiency standards by workers whose hours, pay and working conditions are governed in part by various federal and state laws; it was transported from the factory to the showroom in a truck governed by weight limits by a driver who by law can spend only a certain number of hours on the road each day; it was sold by a dealer who had to make certain legal disclosures and assurances; and when you drove it off the lot you were required to have a minimal amount of insurance and had to travel according to the speed limit and other traffic laws…like not texting while driving!

In many cases, the law is meant to protect us and others from our more destructive impulses by placing limits on what we can do and punishing us when we “step over the line.”  If we drive 100 miles an hour down the freeway, we can expect to get a ticket.  If we try to walk out of Target with a cart full of stuff without paying for it, we will probably be arrested for theft.  If we dump a pile of garbage in our neighbor’s yard and burn down their house because we don’t like the sound of their barking dog, we can expect a visit from the police.  The law in these cases limits our actions and rights to protect the rights and goods of others.

The Jewish law that Jesus referred to in today’s gospel reading was similar in that purpose but it had an even higher one:  to help people become holy and in right relationship with God and neighbor.  But he was concerned that the law had itself become an idol.  In addition, when the scribes, Pharisees and others made literal observance of the law as the definition of righteousness, he was afraid that they were both burdening people and setting the bar too low.  Not killing others, not committing adultery, following the legal requirements for a divorce and avoiding false oaths were OK as far as they went, but the problem was that they didn’t go very far.

Jesus redefined holiness and righteousness for his disciples and the crowds, and he did so by urging them to get to the heart of the matter:  don’t allow anger to fester; don’t play around with lust; honor your marital commitments and don’t put your wife in a vulnerable spot; and speak honestly.  He recognized that while the law punishes people for their actions, the seeds of those actions are planted in the heart and mind and begin to sprout in our thoughts and attitudes.  It is in our hearts and minds that, in Sirach’s words, we choose to keep the commandments and first reach out for fire or water, decide good or evil, and embrace life or death.

The law may be able to keep us from acting badly, but we need the grace of God, the help of the Holy Spirit, and the support of family and friends to make us good.  May we desire not just to keep our darkest desires and basest instincts in check but rather strive to learn the virtues and to trust and follow what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” +