6th Sunday Year A - Homily 4

Homily 4 - 2020

That opening sentence of today’s Gospel passage I find quite challenging, “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The original Greek could be translated a bit differently. Who knows how Jesus expressed things in his native Aramaic! But we can work from the translation we have - with a few tweaks here and there.

Jesus was talking about getting into the kingdom of heaven. “Getting into” can sound a bit more complicated than simply entering it, and even the term “kingdom of heaven” can sound more like focussing on life after death than life now here on earth. Yet in what followed, even in today’s abbreviated passage, Jesus was obviously concerned about how people best live in the here and now. Putting all that together, Jesus seemed to be talking about how to live now if we want to experience now what God offers us, presumably the experience of what we were created for in the first place — human fulfilment, social harmony, personal peace and joy.

No one starts from scratch. People are born into family. Families form communities and sub-cultures. Communities belong to broader cultures. All these groups have their ways of behaving. From them people learn, consciously or unconsciously, what others value; and their consciences tend to conform automatically. They are conditioned to accept the values of their society.This was the kind of world into which Jesus was born.

Sensitised perhaps by John the Baptist, however, Jesus saw clearly that the world he knew was anything but an experience of human fulfilment, social harmony, and personal peace and joy. Yet he realised that God was close, and he knew that God was a God of love, of mercy and forgiveness. People needed to change, and they in turn needed to change their world. His message was clear: “The kingdom of heaven is close at hand”; and his summons was urgent: “Repent and believe the Gospel”. In calling them to repent, he was calling them to a radical change of how they looked at and behaved in their world.

Jesus saw that the experience of God’s kingdom depended on people acting virtuously. However, as he had warned: “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The virtue he referred to was more than, deeper than, the kind of virtue practised by the scribes and Pharisees. When scribes and Pharisees were mentioned in the Gospels, they were typically presented as meticulous observers of the Commandments, and of rules and laws generally. So, if people needed to look beyond commandments, rules and laws in order to to find human fulfilment, social harmony and personal peace and joy, where would they look? Their question is our question. Where do we look for guidance if we seek to make of our world a place where we experience life to the full? The short answer is conscience.

People needed to be encouraged to think, and to think critically. Commandments were not enough. Rules could never be formulated that could cope adequately with the complexities of human situations and interactions. The comments Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount were not simply another lot of rules. They were striking, graphic, challenging and sometimes puzzling metaphors; and their purpose was to stimulate people’s own reflection. He challenged them to see the values that should guide behaviour, values often protected in general terms by the laws they already knew. He invited them to grow in their personal appreciation of those values, to see their truth and to embrace them consistently in practice. He wanted them to learn to think inclusively -- to see reality in all of its confusing complexity, to be at peace with difference. Only then would they ever make sense of and give their whole hearts to his invitation “to love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, pray for those who persecute you”.