Jesus was brilliant. We don’t normally think about Jesus in that manner, but he brought more explanation and depth to the Law. He studied with a Rabbi as a child. He was in the Temple learning from the Doctors when his parents finally found him after three very stressful days. And his Heavenly Father gave him Wisdom and understanding of the Scriptures and people’s tendencies.
Today’s readings take us deeper into relationships, relationships with God and relationships with others and the purpose behind our actions.
The opening words in the First Reading address our relationship with God. “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; …” It continues “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him. The eyes of God are on those who fear him; he understands man’s every deed.” We have the option to choose life or death.
Jesus continues this theme in the Gospel. He said that he did not come to abolish the law. The rules are there for a reason; to help us follow God. Then, Jesus takes it further: it is what is in our hearts. Our intent is more important than just keeping the law for public acceptance or appearance.
Jesus continues to give examples of how we sin based on the intent in our thoughts even without committing the act. This seems harsh! It is not what we think of when we think of sin. Jesus was pointing out that our intent is good or evil as the First Reading tells us. That intent is only known to us, within our hearts and minds, and to God.
Jesus drives the point home when he said “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Everyone knew that the scribes and Pharisees strictly followed the Law to the nth letter of it. But everyone also knew that they did it for a public display seeking approval of how good they were because of how they observed the Law. Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their pious observance of the law without a contrite heart.
Once again, Jesus takes it one step further when he said “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
This may seem a little strange to us today but in Jesus’ time, a person brought a gift to the railing in the Temple, to hand to the priest to offer on the altar as an offering to God. We too bring a gift to the altar when we come to receive him in the Eucharist. We bring the gift of our contrite heart seeking forgiveness and grace through his Body and Blood.
John Pilch writes “Jesus forbids anger and insults that could escalate to murder. For Jesus, squelching the feud even takes precedence over Temple worship!” Maybe our anger doesn’t escalate to physical murder, but have we murdered a person’s reputation?
Notice that in this case, Jesus didn’t say if You have anything against your neighbor but if your neighbor has anything against you. Is our neighbor’s hard feelings because of something we did to them?
Or is it because they don’t like the color of our hair, our skin, our culture, our religion or some other reason. Jesus didn’t make any distinction about why, he said that if we know that someone has something against us, we should make it right. We should not let hard feelings fester and boil over into an argument or a fight.
Family members and one-time close friends don’t talk to each other over issues and arguments that have caused hurt and pain that will not be easy to heal. Political positions have dissolved friendships and split families. I am appalled by what some Catholics post on social media. It is harsh and unchristian. What we post and re-post on Facebook and other social media reveals what is in our heart. I have a friend who has never posted an unkind word on social media – so it can be done.
We do have a choice: The First Reading tells us that we have Life and Death; Good and Evil before us. Jesus said that it is not just our actions that result in Life or Death for us but the intent of our heart. Which will we choose? It is a crucial question because we will receive what we choose.
To help us choose Life and Good, we must spend time in prayer. This is what will help us change the intent of our hearts. An additional five minutes of prayer a day will draw us closer to God. Only God can change our hearts and make us more loving and kind with others.
When a coworker says or does something that really irritates us this week, will we be angry and hateful towards them? Will that anger only be in our thoughts or will it be reflected in our actions? Jesus said that it is the same; the intent of the heart (hatred) causes the act or the thought.
When the person passes us on the road to cut us off to make a turn, how will we react? Will we be angry? Will we curse at them? Or will we pray a prayer that God will keep them safe and prevent them for hurting others?
When we think something on social media is wrong or bad or just disagrees with how we believe, will we write a hateful post or pray a prayer for ourselves and the other person?
We have Life and Death, Good and Evil before us. Which will be given to us?