When we are wronged, most of us really get our back up and want justice or revenge. We get so angry, we want the most extreme punishment possible. In Leviticus, to temper anger and even out justice, we hear the dictum ”eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” It was not meant as a prescription, but a restriction of what we do. A person could not exact a penalty, harsher than what was done to harm. Yet, how often do we hear these words used to justify actions and revenge even today. Sure we heard Jesus say them, but what followed? He said don’t resist evil! If challenged with the law give in, if forced into service as the Romans used to do, just do it. Don’t turn your back on those who wish to borrow. The hardest thing of all, he tells us to love our neighbor. But, he tells us our neighbor includes our enemies. How could that be? Well God created both our loved ones and our enemies. God gave the world to both good and evil people. If as Jesus says, we love only those who love back, what good is that.
God’s love is embedded into our hearts with Baptism and the coming of the Spirit. God’s love takes over and with prayer we come to know and discern what is right. Love tells us the things we must do, it helps us navigate through a whole life’s journey. God’s love enables us to journey through the minefields of life today. Modern day Pharisees and Scribes at times seem to burden humanity just as the people of Israel were once so burdened. Jesus call and commandments are no less essential today as they were when He was put to death for daring to challenge the comfort of written the love God implanted on all our hearts. Finally Jesus said be perfect, as God is perfect. We know such an ideal is impossible yet are we called to any less?
As we grow up, we all looked at right and wrong in terms of black and white, yes or no. We saw law and morality as yes or no, as absolute. Only as we grew and matured did we see and understand the complexity and at times that there was a gray area in many laws and interpretations. We seem at times to look at things and call ourselves conservative or liberal. Yet, if we look at today’s gospel, and I chose the short form to more easily see its point. We see Jesus state the law, but actually reinterpret it to place it as not some ideal out there, but something flowing from our own interior disposition and passion. Anger is wrong and opposite to what we should be as Christians. God’s love and our love of God should enable and help us to control ourselves as persons and do far more than follow the letter of the law. Conservative or Liberal are labels and really irrelevant. Love begets compassion and relationships and should enable us to reach out and live our lives in God’s love with the Holy Spirit he has given us. Laws are for the most part, ideals to reach and follow, but obviously all of us fall short of the ideal at one time or another. It is then that God’s love and compassion will embrace us when we reach out to him, to discern with him what is the best for us. Christ is calling all of us to interiorize his message, to control our inner self and to be the salt and light he mentioned in last week’s gospel. This requires we walk with him and open our hearts. The Scribes and Pharisees were the teachers and followers of the law and insisted on it to the point others couldn’t follow it, because the poverty and difficulties of life itself made the many man-made prescriptions impossible to follow. Jesus clearly invoked compassion as his love embraced those caught up in such a way.
Jesus clearly has given a new life and a new way in proclaiming God’s love and a way of life coming from within the hearts and minds of his followers. Love, compassion, reaching out all called for a way to a new life that even now we as Christians and as Church are still struggling to achieve. Yet Christ’s love keeps us going and holds us together in our work and journey together. It is in our committing to him that we find the peace of heart and mind and find the patience and rest that we all seek, even as we continue on each day. Hopefully, it enables us to be that light that beams his message.
Several years ago, I moved into a rectory in Philadelphia. In every room, there was a curled pipe or more coming out of the walls configured to become a lamp. In the 19th century, these lamps were used to light the house by gas. It was only in the beginning of the 1900’s that electricity came to the city and its houses. I bring it up because we take light and seeing for granted. For centuries, and even now in some parts of the world, light is only something they have for half a day. The light of a fireplace or a candle or an oil lamp is certainly not the convenience we have today. “You are the light of the world” put into the context of Jesus time takes some thinking. Imagine walking or being outside with only the moon or stars to see around us. How crippled were we with our last power outage? Yet in Jesus’ time, a far off fire or lamp would be all they could see. The light that his followers were meant to be was one that penetrated the darkness and ultimately gave hope or showed the way. We take it so much for granted, but light is essential.
Also, for salt. In biblical times, salt did a lot more than season food. In fact, they also used it to preserve food in an age when of course there was no refrigeration. No only that, but it was used in making the fuel that they used in their ovens to cook the food. Only when it was used up and lost it usefulness was it thrown away and trod underfoot. It was another everyday necessity that Jesus used that for us is simply another spice we get at the grocery store. But really, again Jesus chose something at the root of his time, saying that we are at the root of our time.
Being essential and at the root of our time is not easy. To dispel darkness, to witness is no easier today than in past centuries. Humanity at times listens and at other times goes its own way. However, as Christians the Holy Spirit has come to each of us and has made it possible for love to embolden and enable us to move forward. That love enables the reaching out to those who are poor, hungry or in some other dire need. For us the spirit calls to do what we can for those who can not always do for themselves.
Today, we hear the beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the mount. We must be careful of how we consider the beatitudes. Sometimes people look at them almost as rules or a set of commandments Jesus is giving. Some how they say Jesus is condemning wealth, etc. However, Jesus is expressing how we are blessed to be seeking out God. Just look at the first one, Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Those would be those who know and reach out to fill up their lives by coming to know God and what is the real fulfillment in life. Blessedness comes not from worldly fulfillment, but from our inner self, our soul reaching out and being filled up by the love of God. More typically, those seeking God and his love are often times the real poor, the people on the fringes of life and society, the neglected, the humble, the persecuted, the outsider. Those who have found comfort in life and action, have either found God or replaced him with “things”. Those blessed to live a life challenged by love and seeking God in all stages will in one way or another be comforted or find the kingdom of heaven. Living in poverty, seeking meekness, mourning, and the other blessings of the beatitudes are not
rules for living but blessings bestowed to prepare us to hear the good news Jesus will give in his preaching to come. His message is for all, but first a person must be ready in one way or another to be disposed to hear and live the word Jesus speaks. In Jesus time, society was divided in so many ways, it is hard to realize what all those divisions meant in learning the Good News. Jesus spoke mostly to Jews, but there were priests, pharisees, elders, and all kind of people plus Romans, slaves or other visitors from the Roman world. Ultimately, Jesus knew that not all were ready and he would die. He knew that some would hear and believe and his good news would carry on. But the beatitudes remain to remind us of the disposition we need to hear and follow the Word of Jesus.