Once as a kid, my family, along with other aunts, uncles and cousins, went ice-skating. During it, I asked my dad for money to buy food at the concession stand. He said he wouldn’t buy food when we had plenty of food at home. I interpreted this as he personally wouldn’t spend money, but that didn’t mean others would. I later got money from an uncle, and when my dad saw me with food, he asked why I got food when he said not to. I tried to explain that he didn’t pay for it, so there was no problem, but I lost that argument. The underlying command was that I wasn’t to have food when there was plenty at home, so I was supposed to wait.
Jesus is continuing his sermon on the mount. In speaking on the commandments, Jesus does not only acknowledges them, but he expands upon them to include the interior life, the heart of the matter. There is the temptation to straddle the line, to see how far I can go to get away with something. How near the line can I get without crossing it?
It comes down to the whole, well, as long as don’t actually do it, then I can think about it and fantasize about it all I want, I can go halfway, or I can find some loophole, and there’s no trouble with it. Two things wrong with that. One, the more you think about doing something, the more you inch closer and closer, the more likely it is you might actually do it. Two, it completely misses the point of what it means to live as a Christian.
Jesus’ teachings, the grace we receive from him through faith, prayer, charity and sacraments, all of those things are to restore us, to heal us, to allow ourselves to grow in the divine life, to transform us into the persons we are meant to be. Its not just simply following rules, it allowing the commandments to guide us toward something greater.
Jesus says that in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, one would have to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes. Which at first, would seem impossible, because those groups did everything right, on the outside. They were the ones who knew how to follow the specific rules, but despite their learning, didn’t understand the underlying purpose. They could play the part well, but there was no growth. Jesus would often call them hypocrites, since their hearts and actions did not agree. Their hearts were hardened, and so long as they didn’t cross any specific lines, they felt themselves justified and righteous.
Jesus wants us to work at the heart, the root of the matter. Don’t simply avoid killing, but avoid the anger that leads to it. Don’t simply avoid adultery, avoid the lust that leads to it. Don’t swear on things just to emphasize you’re really truthful this time, but always be one who tells the truth, letting your yes mean yes and your no mean no. Don’t just act kind and charitable, be kind and charitable, loving someone from the heart, and not just responsibility.
There is a certain phrase that is used in our church which is “avoiding the near-occasion of sin.” It means to avoid or cut off those things which may lead us to falling into sinful thoughts or actions. Maybe those things aren’t bad in of themselves, but we know they can get us into trouble.
Jesus gives a dramatic solution to such things. If it’s your eye, tear it out. If it’s your hand, cut it off. Maybe it’s a certain place, certain website or social media, it could even be a person or group of people. Now, if you have an opportunity to get away from those things, then you should do so, for your own sake. Why risk those things dragging you down, leading you to anger and resentment, and acting in a way that you don’t want or shouldn’t. Cut them off.
Maybe not easy, maybe painful, but its important for your personal and spiritual good. But maybe, due to circumstance, you can’t avoid certain people of places, perhaps because of work, that’s when you may have to better learn patience, forgiveness, and at times tolerance.
If we obey the commandments because we don’t want to get in trouble or get caught, then fine. It’s a start. But what Jesus ultimately wants from us is a clean heart, a heart that pours out love and charity, the seeks forgiveness and mercy, that is at peace with our neighbor and pure with others.
And so, as our reading from Sirach said, you all have a choice, a daily choice. Choose to keep the commandments, choose to trust in God. Choosing yes to these things leads to salvation and everlasting life. Choosing no leads to death and damnation. God gives us the commandments to follow so that we might be brought to eternal life.
Jesus gives us understanding to not just follow them, but live them in a way that is based on a genuine love and respect for God and for other people. Pray to God, then, that you not simply be able to follow the rules, but to be transformed and grow in the life of Jesus Christ, so that God may more fully abide and dwell with you.