This Sunday, Follow the Law, Says Jesus, But First Comes Love
Jesus says something very relevant to the Synod on Synodality discussion about how to welcome people into the Church in the Gospel we hear on the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B.
Jesus wants to welcome people into his kingdom, but not by compromising the law; if anything, he makes it stricter. But he also makes love for others — real love that wins them over instead of condemning them — absolutely fundamental.
Jesus says we have to follow the commandments, strictly. There’s no getting around it.
“Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law,” he says. The old Tyndale Bible translations used the brilliant turn of phrase “jot or tittle” to describe the tiniest part of the law. Matthew’s Greek says “yod or serif” — a yod looks like an apostrophe and serifs are the chisel marks at the stems of letters when they are chiseled in stone.
So, no apostrophe or chisel mark of the law will be lost. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, now Father Simeon, says this is reminiscent of Ignatius of Loyola saying he was prepared to give his life not only for the great dogmas of the faith, but also for the least rubric of the Roman Missal. In other words, he was saying “I intend to obey God always, in everything and to stand apart from God and second guess him never, in nothing.”
That is what Jesus asks. But obedience to the law is not a matter of enslaving oneself to external observances as the Pharisees did; in fact it’s the opposite. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” says Jesus, “you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus himself explains what he means so we won’t get it wrong.
He takes us on a tour of key commandments and tells us how he comes not “to abolish but to fulfill” them.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, you shall not kill,” he begins. “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment … and whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”
Jesus clarifies what he means further when he says, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave the gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled to your bother, and then come and offer your gift.”
He is saying that our love and respect for each other is so fundamental that we can’t love God without it. This isn’t good news for many of us today. As St. John will later say, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” That makes a lot of us liars, because we do a lot of hating nowadays, including calling people fools — everyone from neighbors to politicians to Pope Francis.
Jesus spells out further what how we are expected to love and respect others. First, don’t exploit others legally; instead, “Settle with your opponent quickly on the way to court.” Second, don’t exploit others sexually, including those who pose for pornography; for “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In fact, he says, you should prefer being crippled to sinning against people in this way.
He takes this “real love” principle into the most intimate of relationships, marriage, and the most public of relationships, politics and law. Be true to your spouse, because “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” he says. And don’t exaggerate for political gain, because you must “let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No. Anything more is from the evil one.”
The consequences of choosing to do the wrong things are dire, Jesus says. You “will be liable to fiery Gehenna;” you will go to hell when you die.
If we really believe the Gospel we will treat several classes of people radically differently, as Cardinal Robert McElroy has pointed out.
Cardinal McElroy of San Diego recently wrote in America magazine that “The continuing sin of racism in our society and our church has created prisons of exclusion that have endured for generations, especially among our African American and Native American communities.”
The Church has, in one way or another, excluded these people, and that’s a terrible sin, according to Sunday’s Gospel, which makes love and respect for others fundamental. Cardinal McElroy adds that the Church’s moral teaching “means advocating forcefully against racism and economic exploitation” because “the church has a hierarchy of truths,” and social justice is in a very high place.
How high a place? I explain it by pointing out that the Catechism goes so far as to specially denounce sins that cry out to heaven including “the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner.”
If we want to follow Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel, we can’t dismiss the rights of the people who pick our food and make our phones; we can’t shrug off the plight of the oppressed.
But I would add that we have to advocate against all the sins that cry out to heaven, including the two others the Catechism mentions: “the blood of Abel [and] the sin of the Sodomites.”
The blood of Abel, family-killing, is associated with abortion by St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. The sin of the Sodomites, in the New Testament and the Old Testament, refers to disordered sexuality. Surely, Jesus means to include these in Sunday’s Gospel warning when he says to keep every yod and serif of the law, then points directly at sins of violence and illicit sex acts, in addition to politics and law. In fact, Pope Francis has singled out both sins of abortion and homosexual acts recently.
But it is vital to remember that at the heart of it all is love, not condemnation: Love for all souls who share the image and likeness of God. Our obligation to denounce sin is so real that when we fail, our neighbors’ sins become ours.
It’s not a matter of opposing the right “bad guys.” Jesus puts us in charge of the well being of all.
As St. Paul points out in the Second Reading, “We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory.” He says “none of the rulers of this age knew” that message, “for, if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.”
According to Paul, we don’t stand opposed to evil forces that we must destroy in a culture war. We live in what Pope Francis calls a “field hospital” after a battle. Our task is to heal the walking wounded — those who have been exploited by the lies of our time: Economic lies, lies about human dignity, lies about human life, lies about human sexuality.
Sunday’s Psalm is a prayer for all of us: “Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statues, that I may exactly observe them.” And the first reading is the message we owe to our neighbor: “If you choose you can keep the commandments; they will save you. … To none does he give license to sin.”