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Gospel commentary: Light the fire

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The Catholic Church exists to take broken, flawed, fallen human persons and form them into saints. God has created us not merely to be good, but to be holy. “Be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). If all you want is to be a better citizen, or a more virtuous employer, or a better neighbor, or a nicer person, you really don’t need the Catholic Church. All you need is the self-help section of any decent bookstore. But God knows you're capable of so very much more. That’s why Jesus sets forth the highest moral standard ever asked of any follower of any religion in history. The Gospel this week spells out its basic premise. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).

Who were the Pharisees? To make a long story short, the Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism that emphasized the observance of the law of God, right down to the last letter. Essentially, the Pharisees reduced Judaism to a list of rules to keep. But the trouble with reducing religion to mere rule-keeping is that it quickly devolves into minimalism. One necessarily learns to ask, “What’s the least I have to do to keep this rule?” This is the same spirit that asks the age-old question, “How far can I go before this becomes a sin?” That question can never be answered, of course, because God wants the love of your heart, and love never asks, “What's the least I can possibly give?” This is why no Christian can ever love God with a merely superficial observance of the commandments.

We hear Jesus identify three of the ten commandments this week. “You shall not kill … you shall not commit adultery … you shall not take a false oath … ” He then proceeds to explain that the very desire to break the commandment is already a violation of it. One may rightly ask how any frail human being could possibly live up to so high a moral standard. Jesus himself answers that question in the Gospel’s opening line, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). Read that statement again. Who fulfilled the law and the prophets? Jesus did. If we are to live up to the standards Jesus asks of his followers, we must understand that this is ultimately his work — rather than ours — in us. Holiness is received, not achieved.

It would be an error to reduce this Gospel to mere moralism: “Stop being so angry and unchaste. Stop getting divorced, and stop lying.” Such things are impossible by human power alone, but not by God’s power. God's grace is the life that raises human nature to the heights to which we were created. It's important to note, however, this fact does not exonerate us from cooperation and participation with God's work. In the Bible, the deepest core of a human person lies not in our emotions, but in our will. It's the place where we choose for God or choose against him. And since God is a lover, he draws closer to us, or moves further away from us, based on our response to his grace. That’s why every time we say “yes,” God empowers us to make an even deeper yes, and every time we say “no,” we lose what little strength we have.

The word “holiness” describes what happens to a soul when our will and God's will have become the same — when we do what Christ would do, when we say what Christ would say, and when we think what Christ would think. It's what St. Paul once meant when he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). St. Catherine of Siena once said, “If you are what you should be, you would set the whole world ablaze.” Let’s light that fire. God’s grace awaits your “yes.”

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020