REMINDER: March 16 we will make the switch to our new Mass time of 4:00pm. Today's Mass is still at 7:30pm. See you there!
SIXTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (A)
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You have a choice to make. "If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you." This is the first line of our first reading today from Sirach. If you choose you can keep the commandments. It's a simple choice, really, and not a hard one to make. Do you want to do God's will or don't you? I think the great majority of us would say yes to this question. So it's an easy choice to make, but a difficult one to execute. Sometimes the difficulty makes us think it is impossible. But Sirach reminds us that it is not. You can choose to live a holy life. You can do it. It is possible.
Not only is it possible to follow the commandments, it is necessary for our salvation. If you intend to spend the afterlife in eternal joy and happiness in the presence of the God who made you, and not in eternal torture and pain in the fires of Gehenna, this is a choice you need to make. Whoa! Hell? Wait... that's not a topic of polite conversation. Nobody talks about Hell anymore. That's not the Jesus we know. He's nice and welcoming and loving. He would never send anyone to Hell.
Perhaps you are right. Perhaps Jesus doesn't send anyone to Hell. But we can send ourselves there. We can choose a path in life that leads to that fiery destination. And Jesus wants us to get off that path. He wants us to make another choice. The first step in getting us to choose the right path is to make sure we know where the path we are currently on will lead us. This is why Jesus in today's gospel reading (Mt 5:17-37) uses such language as "fiery Gehena" and "liable to judgment," and "thrown into prison." He wants us to avoid this fate. He wants us to do anything we need to do in order not to end up there, even if that means cutting of our own hand or plucking out our eye if it leads us to sin. Jesus tells us we ave a choice (but that choice doesn't sound so easy any more).
But hold on again... isn't this the works-based salvation that Protestant reformers accused the Catholic Church of teaching? Does the Church really think all we need to do is keep the commandments and our good deeds will save us? No. The idea that we can earn our way to heaven by living a good life, apart from divine assistance, is actually one of the first heresies condemned by the Catholic Church. It's called Pelagianism, after a fourth century British priest named Pelagius, who taught that original sin was a myth, and it was possible (at least in theory) for a man to be born and live his entire life without sin. For Pelagius, Christ was not so the divine physician come to heal us from the wounds of sin as He was a divine good example for us to emulate in leading a sinless life. St. Augustine spent a good part of his life combating the Pelagian heresy, which was roundly condemned by the Church.
We need Christ, and none of our good deeds have any merit apart from Him. This is why immediately after Sirach tells us, "If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you," he goes on to say, "if you trust in God, you too shall live." We need to do both. We need to choose to do good and we need to choose to trust God. Sirach spells it out quite plainly. Before us are two options - water or fire, good or evil, life or death. Whichever we choose will be given to us.
But hold on a third time... isn't this legalism? Didn't Christ do away with the Old Testament notion that all we have to do is jump through God's moral hoops to get to heaven? Again, no. Christ did not come to do away with the old law. He says as much today. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." And then he speaks, like Sirach, of the importance of obeying the commandments.
How does Christ fulfill the law? He peels back the outer layer of the commandments and shows us the heart of the matter. The commandment says do not kill. Jesus says not to be angry with your brother. The commandment says not to commit adultery. Jesus says do not look at a woman with lust. Jesus shows us that the commandments are not only about our actions, but our inward disposition. Not killing someone is easy. Not hating someone, not holding on to anger or bitterness -- that's hard. Not having an extra-marital affair is easy. Not harboring lustful thoughts is much, much harder. Not breaking a solemn oath might be difficult at times, but it's a fairly simple matter. Being truthful in every little thing you say is much more demanding. Christ did not come to make our lives easier. He came to make them better.
When I was in college, I had friends who were Wiccan. They told me that their basic moral tenant was, "Do no harm." That sounds good as far as it goes. But Christianity goes beyond "do no harm," and tells us, "do good." It tells us to be good. Christ shows us what is at the heart of all the commandments - Love. To keep the commandments in spirit as well as in deed means we must become loving people.
This is the choice we have to make. Today's lesson is that it is possible to make that choice. We can choose good. Even when it is difficult; even when it feels like we are outcasts, with the world standing against us, we can choose the right thing. Even when it feels like an unbearable burden to follow God's law, and all our habits and desires are pulling us in the direction of sin, we can make that choice. We can still choose to do good.
We can make that choice, even in the most difficult of circumstances, because we know making the choice is only the first step. The second is vital. Choose to love. And then trust in God.