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In This Sunday’s Gospel, the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A, Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount and demands that his followers not just behave well, but change who we are on the inside, as well. There is a big difference.
We are used to being able to fake our life. We know what we need to do to get by in nearly every situation: at work, at home, with our friends, with our enemies, in church and at prayer. We are not so good at interior change.
Given what Jesus sets as a standard, we Christians have a huge problem on our hands.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill,” he says. “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.” He adds: “and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”
That means a lot of us are going to be liable, because a lot of us are saying “You fool.” The New York Times reported research last year that found 42% of both Republicans and Democrats view the opposition as “downright evil” — that’s 48.8 million Americans.
Researchers even asked: “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?” And found that 20% of Democrats (12.6 million voters) and 16% of Republicans (7.9 million voters) said Yes.
The “rising hatred” phenomenon is happening outside of politics, too. The number of people who say they experience significant rudeness at work rose to a 62% majority in 2016, according to Georgetown University research, affecting productivity and mental health.
Many of us think we are good Christians because we are superficially polite: We control our behavior despite thinking terrible thoughts inside. That’s not good enough for Jesus. He wants us to love our neighbor for real, in our heart, and then speak to them based on real love, not to provoke them or dodge them.
If you look at his expectations for how we treat the opposite sex, it gets worse.
“You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says.
I remember a lecture by Scripture scholar Father Francis Martin in which he observed that if you look at male and female social interactions objectively you would be shocked. Consecrated men and women who spend a lot of time in their communities report the same thing. When they come out into the world they see a clear sexualization in the way men and women interact in our day.
It’s not surprising. From sit-com banter to the Super Bowl halftime show, we are taught to view each other sexually.
Jesus warns that this won’t work. Not only should we avoid treating each other as sex objects in our actions, we shouldn’t even think of them that way.
Last, Jesus wants real honesty.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath,” he says. “But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”
Honesty has also seen better days. The news we watch is often “angertainment” which carefully selects news for our particular ideological bubble to make us cheer the “good guys” we like and boo the “bad guys” we hate. The information we read, or listen to, or watch, is often in marketing-speak that contains an ounce of truth and piles of “truthful hyperbole.” And our own presentation of our lives on social media is often carefully curated to make a sliver of the truth about us the whole truth about us.
That won’t do. God wants us to respect others enough not to hate them or lust after them, and he wants us to respect ourselves enough to be 100% honest.
Jesus Christ’s standard for the Christian is real love; a love you can’t fake.
“The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God,” says St. Paul in the Second reading. He knows us through and through and there is nowhere to hide.
Those who live authentically have a great gift awaiting tthem: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit,” says St. Paul.
Meanwhile, those who live another way are choosing a terrible fate.
“[H]e has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand,” says the first reading from Wisdom. “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.”
In other words, God sets expectations sky high, and the consequences for failure are eternal. How can we meet them?
How can Jesus expect so much? And how can the consequences of failure be so extreme? One key truth explains both: We are made in the image of God. So is everyone we meet. To be who we are, we have to treat them with that much respect; and treat ourselves with the same respect.
God has so much respect for us that he makes our actions count, and he makes our freedom real. “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself,” says the Catechism. Mortal sin “causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell.” That means “our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back.”
That means our love has to be real. Fake love ends in disaster.
And that means our life’s prayer, and our life’s work, is what we pray in this Sunday’s Psalm: “Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.”