13 February 2014

'You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .' Sunday Reflections, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37 [ or 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37] (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, Canada) [May be omitted]

Jesus said to his disciples: [“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.] For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; [and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.]

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.]

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, [either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.] Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Responsorial Psalm (NAB Lectionary, Philippines, USA)

More than thirty years ago I spent part of a summer working in a parish near New York City. One day when I was on duty I answered the phone. The man calling gave me his name, which I wrote down. He told me he was living in an irregular situation, having been divorced from his wife. He was asking what the Church could do for him in that situation. I tried to tell him about programmes that the Church had in the diocese for Catholics who were divorced and re-married civilly or living with someone else. The latter situation wasn't nearly as common then as it is now.

But he was getting more and more angry, though I remained calm. He eventually hung up.

I was able to find his mailing address easily and wrote him a letter letting him know that I had understood his situation and the reason for his anger and frustration. Again, I informed him of the ways the Church was trying to be with those who found themselves in situations such as his.

The following day I had another phone call from the man. He thanked me profusely for my letter, for having listened to him and for having heard what he was trying to say. He also acknowledged that he was in a situation that he himself had created.

Today's Gospel shows us a Jesus who is somewhat different from the 'domesticated' meek and mild Jesus that we often imagine or create. He speaks of hard things: the consequences of breaking God's law, the necessity of forgiving and accepting forgiveness, the fruits of anger - not the feeling, which is something spontaneous, but the decision to remain angry/to hate - and the effects of adultery. Some of the most difficult parts of the gospel may be omitted and probably will be by many priests, for various reasons.

The media at the moment are giving lots of coverage to how the Church approaches those who are living with someone not their spouse. One might be led to think that the Church is being harsh for the sake of being harsh, imposing impossible difficulties on some of its members and failing to be 'merciful' and 'pastoral'.

On 11 February Fr Edward McNamara LC, who writes for the Catholic news agency Zenit, replies to a question about this very matter. He quotes from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos 1650 and 1651. The latter says, Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons: 'They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace.

I have close friends in such situations and in visiting parishes in Britain to do mission appeals for the Columbans I've met couples in irregular situations who are very much involved in their parishes, but who accept the teaching of Jesus, expressed through his Church, and live with that painful reality which they know they have created for themselves, for whatever reasons.

Rembrandt, 1644 [Web Gallery of Art]

In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) we find this exchange at the end:

Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus shows the woman the greatest respect. Part of that respect is not denying that she had sinned. She knew that she had. God alone knew what had been going on in her heart. Jesus restored her dignity to her, gave her hope: Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Jesus has taught us very clearly what marriage is: Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:3-6)

This is a hard saying. Many utterly reject it, even the part about male and female. Others wrestle with the consequences of not accepting the teaching of Jesus when they find themselves in difficult situations.

Some think, wrongly, that the Church does not allow persons who are divorced to receive Holy Communion. That is not true. An ongoing seriously sinful situation is created when two persons, at least one of whom is married in the eyes of the Church, choose to live together whether after a civil wedding or otherwise. The same, of course, applies to any two persons not married to each other who live together in a sexually intimate relationship. That is a choice people make. But if a divorced person lives a chaste life he or she isn't living in a sinful situation.

The First Reading makes it very clear that God gives us the freedom to choose - and that there are consequences to the choices we make:

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
    and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
    stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
 Before each person are life and death,
    and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
    he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
    and he knows every human action.
 He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,  
    he has not given anyone permission to sin.

The response in the responsorial psalm, which is an echo of the first reading, is Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord! (NAB). This is taken from Psalm 119 [118], as are the verses used in the responsorial psalm. this is the longest psalm, 176 verses in groups of eight in praise of God's law as something that makes us free.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenges us in every aspect of our lives. He challenges us to think with a new mindset. St Paul expresses it well: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

That means taking to heart the words that Jesus repeated a number of times in the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard it said . . . But I say to you . . .

God So Loved the World (from Stainer’s ’The Crucifixion’)
Words: Text compiled by William John Sparrow-Simpson 
Music: God So Loved the World (from Stainer’s 'The Crucifixion’) John Stainer
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,
That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish,
But have everlasting life.
For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world,
But that the world through Him might be saved.

Communion Antiphon (John 3:16)

God so loved the world 
that he gave his Only Begotten Son, 
so that all who believe in him may not perish, 
but may have eternal life.

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