Mar. 29, 2017

SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR IN ORDINARY TIME, A.

CHRISTIAN MORALITY, A HIGHER STANDARD OF LIVING 

Commitment to the commandments of God seems to be the focus of the readings of this Sunday. Ben Sirach sets the tone for human choice and consequences in relation to the law of God when he says, "If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you" (Sir.15:15). Choice means making decision on the options before the individual. It means taking decisive actions not impulsive ones. God gave man free will as the first reading narrates, "he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before men are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him". 

It was the wrong choice of the first man and woman that brought sin into the world. God said to Adam, "You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die" (Gen.2:16-17). The gift of free will clearly distinguishes man from other creatures. With good use of free will man is able to rule the created universe. The commandments guide man to choose the good, to make right choices. For that reason, the wise Sirach tells us that trustful following of divine commandments guarantees life whereas disobedience brings death. Often times, we hear this expression, "the choice is yours". It explains the capacity in each of us to make decisions and as well face the consequences of whatever decisions we make. 

In the gospel, Christ sets a higher standard for Christians. He makes his listeners understand that he is not just the law breaker the Jews imagined him to be, "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them (Matt.5:17)". At his transfiguration, Christ revealed to us his mission of fulfilling the Law and the Prophets when Moses and Elijah appeared before him. The commandments of God serve as standard of action and possibly of judgment. The Commandments do not change with time, they are permanent. Jesus has not come to obliterate the commandments, rather He has come to bring them to fullest development. To follow Christ is to have the grace to act. 

We must realize that Christianity is not stagnant. It is a journey. In this journey, the Christian has to accelerate. Let's use the car as an example here. Those who drive know that the car is designed to use gear as it runs on the roads. Think of the old manual gear system where the driver has to select gear manually from time to time. You keep accelerating. Still in the automatic gear system, we have the Park (P), Neutral (N), Drive (D), then 1, 2, and L or Overdrive. Once the ignition is on and the car in motion, it accelerates otherwise it is parked. Same as the Christian. Any Christian that doesn't accelerate is inactive. Some Christians are in N (neutral) permanently. They are not hot and not cold. They are just flat. They merely roll along with others, go to church and go back home, that's it. Some other Christians are just parked in one place, they just stay in their faith garage. The idea of sin doesn't touch them, they don't bother about forgiveness, not even about love. Spirituality, for such people is completely separated from their daily life. Prayers are said only in the church and not at home or at the office. Their gear is inactive. Such Christians do not bother about the higher standard. 

The example Jesus sets is that of higher standard. Christians raise the bar. Our righteousness and relationships must "exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees". Jesus refers to the Old Testament in this teaching, "You have heard how it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment". Yes, killing is evil. The action of killing proceeds from the intention to eliminate life. For Jesus, the Christian has to go beyond the action to curb the urge of doing evil. Then he commands, "But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother, will be liable to judgment..." Anger breeds hatred, then hatred develops into negative action. So, conception of evil is already bad in itself. Saint James puts it this way, "Everyone is put to the test by being attracted and seduced by that person's own desire. Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin, and when sin reaches full growth, it gives birth to death" (Jas.1:14-15). 

Christ steps up the Old Testament law here. He invites Christians to let their good actions proceed from their hearts. He demands that we accelerate the standard of our living. He wants us to aim at the best. Hence his injunction, "But I say to you..." Note that all bad actions- adultery, murder, theft, malice, greed, pride, lying, etc, proceed from the heart (cf.Mk.7:21-22). Note that Jesus uses the expression, "But I say to you" to invite Christians to a higher ideal of living. "But I say to you", brings us to the "Fourth Gear" of our Christian journey. 

In the case of divorce, the law of Moses permitted a man to give his wife a writ of divorce for very slight and minimal reasons. Say the woman is a bad cook, that alone was enough reason to send her away from the man's house. Christ says in the new standard, "But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife- unless the marriage is unlawful- causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery". I don't know how strong this applies in today's society. And let me say this, the Christian standard should set the pace for the society not the other way round. The Christian morality should drive and inspire others because it is founded on discipline. The Christian attitude in marriage- fidelity, love and commitment to one's spouse-, should make others to admire marriage and feel like living it the Christian way. We shouldn't be inclined more to what the society thinks. Because the world wants divorce or tries to make it simple does not mean it is the correct thing. And the danger is that we just want to do what the world wants.  Marriage in the Catholic church is different. It is a covenant and a sacrament. We should set the tempo, a high one for that matter. 

The Christian way of sincerity should influence others. The Christian way of justice and fairness should influence the world, etc. That's why Christ says, "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes', and your 'No' mean 'No' (Matt.5:37). The Christian should be a person of her words. People should look on our behavior and feel the impact of our faith and spirituality. For the young people here today, tell your friends that your catholic model demands you to say the truth. Your Catholic morality demands you to show commitment to what you believe. Tell your friends that your Catholic morality is more important to you than the Internet morality. It might be a bit tough, but that is the way of survival in the long-term. 

Christ is again inviting us to the higher standard of living. He wants us to know that the expectations of being a Christian is high. It does not allow compromise. As Christians, it is 'Yes' or 'No', not 'Yes' and 'No' at the same time. I was discussing with a Pentecostal pastor-friend yesterday and she told me it's easier to convert an atheist than to convert a Catholic. I asked her why and she said that it is because Catholics have all the theological arguments in the world. I told her it is not the issue. Rather that you don't convert an already converted person, that's the reason. Then she went on to say that it is easier to convert a Muslim than to convert a Catholic. Anyway, the conversation was much broader. But the message is that Catholics are known to hold a different standard. Our standard should be driven by, and inspired by the scripture. It should be the based on truth, love, justice, fairness. It should be the standard guided by wisdom and the convincing power of the Spirit, and not of this age. Otherwise, it comes from the evil one.