Each of the lessons taught in today’s Gospel passage could be expanded into an entire book and they have been. But at the core of them all, is the heart. Biblically speaking the heart represents the inner depths of a person, the place where decisions are made, and the place where we decide to either respond to God or to resist Him. Ancient people saw the heart as the source of all emotions like love, and grief, and anxiety, and joy. The heart was the source of thought, will, and conscience. And even today it means so much more to us when someone tells us they love us with their whole heart. It just wouldn’t sound right if someone said to us, “I love you with my whole brain!” It might be the anatomically correct thing to say but it just doesn’t sound right. You would never see that on a Valentine card, a big picture of a brain with the caption, “You’re awesome; I love you with my whole brain!”
Jesus came to align our hearts more and more with God. He came to align our thoughts, our will, and our conscience more and more with God the Father. Friendship with God, which is what Jesus offers, requires a union of hearts. Now certainly, our exterior behavior must follow God’s will, we still obey the Ten Commandments. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.” But Jesus is also telling us that exterior behavior, that appearance, is not enough. For a true, faithful citizen of Christ’s Kingdom, the attitudes and desires of the heart must also be in harmony with God’s plan for our lives. This is what Jesus means when he says: “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill.” He came to bring the Old Testament Law to its fulfillment.
Christ is explaining the Law from this perspective when he explains the true meaning of sinful anger, lust, and lying. God “wills that all of us be saved” (1Timothy 2:4), but our friendship, our heart’s alignment with him can never be complete when we harbor resentment or contempt towards some people, or tarnish their good name by spreading rumors about them or speaking ill of them. How can we live in intimacy with a God who loves every man and woman as a father loves his children, when in our hearts we desire to use some of them only as an object of pleasure and self-indulgence? How can we be a true friend of God, when we make promises we don’t intend to keep?
The law is being intensified. The old law is being raised up to a new pitch of intensity. At the very end of this Sermon on the Mount our Lord tells us, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This might seem to be an impossible request but it could also be seen as an invitation to accept God’s grace at every moment of our lives. Divine love is constant and always present, as is God’s forgiveness, no matter what we may do.
We always have the option of accepting God’s love and moving towards perfection, and fundamentally, this is the Church’s job to make us perfect saints. She is not satisfied with spiritual mediocrity; she is not satisfied with people that are just basically good. She wants to make us perfect as God is perfect. Now this is a tall order, and it’s not easy.
Some of the church’s moral demands are deemed too hard, by some, especially in the realm of sexual morality. No intimate relations outside of marriage, marriage is between one man and one woman. No artificial contraception, no in-vitro fertilization, no embryonic stem cell research, no abortion. Completely against the tide of what the world says is right and good. This is hard and some people balk. But through the centuries people have always balked. We just hear about it more in this age of constant information. The church’s job is to make us perfect; we don’t compromise and give in to the world’s views.
This perfection is possible; God wouldn’t ask it of us if it were impossible. We have so many examples of people in our lives even, parents, grandparents, siblings, the person sitting in the pew next to you maybe. We can also look to the many saints in heaven, people just like us, I’ve talked about a lot of them, they failed, they sinned, but they never gave up, until finally reaching the perfection of heaven. We are little, we will trip and fall, but we keep trusting in Gods great love and mercy, and we keep trying. We never stop trusting and trying.
In this week’s gospel, Jesus intensifies the moral law and raises the bar. Christ’s goal and the Church’s goal are to make saints. His moral demands are great, but so is his mercy. Where there is extreme demand there is also extreme mercy. He always offers grace and forgiveness when we falter so that we can always have hope in our struggles for sanctity. May our hearts be ever more aligned with our Lord’s so that each beat of our heart becomes an act of love and praise.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher Ankley