(Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary time, cycle A)
This is a true story. One evening on the freeway, a group of nuns in a van were on their way back to the convent. One of the sisters was driving. And then from out of the blue, a California Highway Patrol car gave chase and signaled the van to pull over on the side of the road. When the officer saw who was driving, he said, “Oh, Sister, why were you driving over the speed limit? That’s very dangerous!” “I’m sorry, officer. It’s because I did not see your patrol car” was the sister’s reply. Did you know that there is an eleventh commandment? Thou shall not get caught. And I think there is also a twelfth commandment. If you get caught, thou shall deny it. But wait; there is a thirteenth commandment. If you cannot deny it, thou shall blame others.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. He also tells his disciples that unless their righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. In a way the scribes and the Pharisees are righteous because they strictly follow the commandments. But why is it that their righteousness is not enough? And Jesus demands more from his disciples. What kind of righteousness is Jesus asking from his disciples?
The scribes and the Pharisees are known to obey all the commandments. They do this with such rigidity. They don’t want to be caught violating any of the 613 precepts that Moses gave to them. However, on many occasions Jesus has accused them of observing the commandments for appearances only. The scribes and the Pharisees are more interested in the praises that the people would lavish them as they religiously follow the law and the prophets. Sadly, their external observance of the commandments results in a kind of righteousness that is self-serving. Jesus calls this hypocrisy. In many instances we have heard Jesus reserved his harshest words to hypocrites. At one time he compared hypocrites to white washed tombs that are clean on the outside but decaying on the inside.
As far as Jesus is concerned the Pharisees and the scribes are just fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law. They may not be committing murder but they might be harboring anger or resentment against another and so they are liable to judgment. They may not covet another man’s wife, but they might be looking at a woman with lust, then they are guilty of the sin against chastity. When Jesus asks his disciples to surpass the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, he tells them to fulfill the law with the real understanding of the spirit of the law. The disciples must go beyond the minimum observance of the law. Keeping the commandments for show or for fear of being caught is not the kind of righteousness that Jesus expects from his disciples. Real righteousness comes from the observance of the law with the spirit of sacrifice or self-giving. The gift of self to God and neighbors should define or characterize one’s observance of the law and the prophets. This is how Jesus fulfilled them. He gave himself fully as a ransom for many.
The good news that we hear is that today’s gospel passage is part of the gospel of Mathew’s Sermon on the Mount that begins with the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes Jesus is telling his disciples that they are blessed. And because they are blessed they are empowered to choose wisdom that enables them to understand the spirit of the law. When the disciples keep the commandments with the spirit of sacrifice and self-giving, they are being true to their identity as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Being the salt of the earth and light of the world is the vocation of every disciple of Jesus, and for that matter, of every Christian. We heard this from last Sunday’s gospel passage that is also part of the Sermon on the Mount.
When we always remember that we are blessed and that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world, we observe God’s commandments not for external appearances but because we want to make a difference in this world. We want to make this world a better place to live. Unfortunately, sometimes we forget and that’s when we become like the scribes and the Pharisees. And so there is a need for us to be reminded at all times. Coming to mass every Sunday, celebrating the Eucharist and listening to the word of God helps in making us remember who we are and what we are as disciples of Jesus. When we keep in mind that we are blessed as Christians then we don’t worry about being caught violating the commandments because living the beatitudes has already become a way of life for us.