Sunday, February 16, 2014

Perfecting the Sinner

Moses receiving the Law of the Lord
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37

“Blessed are they who follow the Law of the Lord.”

I hope that all of us can point to times in our lives when we followed the Lord’s commands in some way and experienced blessings as a result. It’s not like a treat for playing nice with God, but more a reality that when we do things according to His plan it works out better for us because that’s how things were made to work in the first place. But as much as I know that in my head, sometimes when I hear that phrase, “blessed are they who follow the Law of the Lord” part of me wants to call shenanigans. I don’t know about your lived experience of the faith each day, but mine isn’t easy. There are many times when I feel anything other than blessed by trying to follow the Law of the Lord because doing so is difficult. Anyone who thinks that being a Christian is easy clearly hasn’t given it a genuine effort. Think about the challenging words we just heard from the Gospel. It’s relatively easy to avoid murdering someone, but to avoid even getting angry with them? Not so easy.

In the Gospel we heard the Lord say to His listeners and to us, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” He takes the requirements of Law and rather than strip them away, He goes even deeper. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was caught up in the externals. The hearts of the people were not yet ready to be what God wanted them to be so He gave them externals to help shape their hearts, or at least that was the intention. And so if you don’t kill someone, you’re a good person. If you don’t commit adultery, you’re a good person. If you do the right ceremonial washings, house cleansings, etc., you’re a good person. It was so much in the external. But with the coming of Christ everything changes.

With Jesus’ death and Resurrection, He has redeemed us and given us the grace – His life within us – to be able to live not only by externals, but even by the deeper realities they were meant to bring about. No longer is it enough for us to simply not kill, we have to not be angry with others. No longer is it enough to not commit adultery, but we have to look upon others with a pure heart. It is the grace of Jesus Christ that enables us to do these things. The concessions that were there ‘because of hardness of heart’ for the Jews have been taken away and we are called to enter into that real relationship with Christ that goes to the heart. That’s the most important part for us now: the transformation of the heart. We can do all of the external things such as going to Mass, praying a rosary, reading the Bible, and doing acts of kindness, but if we never come to know Jesus Christ and let Him change our hearts, then we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We should do all of those externals, but we need to make sure that they correspond to an internal disposition of our hearts, that we open ourselves to His grace.

Now I’m saying all of this about opening to God’s grace and relying upon Him to help us do the things we’re supposed to do, but at the same time I look at myself and realize that I celebrate Mass daily, go to confession regularly, spend time in prayer each day, and try to serve others as Christ calls me to, and yet I still sin. A lot. It frustrates me quite often, which is why I sometimes get frustrated with those words from the responsorial psalm. And yet, the thing is that I know God still loves me and sees the effort I’m giving. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us to ‘be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” He calls us to perfection, but He also knows that often we will fall short. The most important thing for us to remember, though, is that we have to keep getting up and following after the Lord. If we do our best to remember that the unimaginable glory of Heaven awaits the righteous and always strive to act like Jesus wants us to, then things will work out and we will indeed be blessed. It’s about keeping our eyes on Christ and trying to be perfect, knowing that it takes a whole lifetime for His grace to make that happen.

There’s a beautiful quote that I came across yesterday in the Liturgy of the Hours that summarizes this well. It’s from Blessed Isaac of Stella and it says this:

The more any way of life sincerely strives for the love of God and the love of our neighbor for God’s sake, the more acceptable it is to God, no matter what be its observances or external form. For charity is the reason why anything should be done or left undone, changed or left unchanged; it is the initial principle and the end to which all things should be directed. Whatever is honestly done out of love and in accordance with love can never be blameworthy. May he then deign to grant us this love, for without it we cannot please him, and without him we can do absolutely nothing, God, who lives and reigns for ever. Amen.