6th Sunday Year A

See Commentary on Matthew 5:17-37

Homily 1 – 2011 

Jesus saw the Kingdom of heaven as there to be entered.  But what did he mean by Kingdom of heaven?  That is not so easy to answer.  One way of pinning it down could be this.  It is a way of living: of being alive, of being ourselves, of interacting with others and with the created world, a way of living that would be personally satisfying and totally fulfilling.

It is founded on the fact that we loved by God.  But that has always been so.  It needs more.  We need to recognise that God loves us, and to go along with the fact.  We need to believe in the God who is love.  [We probably all think that we do that already – but I am not so sure.  We don’t always sit easily with God’s totally unconditional love – either for ourselves or for everyone.]  A consequence of being totally loved by God is that we all have an amazing dignity – independently of  whether we realise it or not, or whether we live up to it or not.

We begin to enter the Kingdom of heaven as we recognise our dignity, and, at the same time, the equal dignity of every human person, and seek to interact accordingly.  That interacting consists in learning to see each other as in fact we are: loved by God, sharing the life of God (and, in that sense, children of God – brothers and sisters of each other); and to respect our selves and to respect all others as well.

Jesus saw that the way proposed by the scribes and Pharisees did not measure up to life in the Kingdom: If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the Kingdom of heaven.  What was the way of living proposed by the scribes and Pharisees?  It wasn’t peculiar to them.  We are all very familiar with it.

It is way of living that relies on commandments, on laws and traditions –  a way of life guided from the outside.  Now, it is important to keep the commandments, for sure.  Jesus was clear about that: anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments … will be considered least in the Kingdom of heaven.  But a life dominated by commandments is not life in the Kingdom.  So long as we see our lives determined by rules imposed on us by others – even if the other is God, we live as slaves.  Our motivation is ultimately fear.  Life in the Kingdom is not life lived under law, or under fear.  It is a life that flows from a profound personal acceptance of human dignity, and is guided from within – not from outside, by virtue, not be law, and is motivated by, and takes shape in, real, genuine respect.

The examples that Jesus lists in today’s Reading are all clearly based on the need for a personalised recognition of others’ God-given dignity, and what flows from that: the destructiveness even of spontaneous hostility, the dignity of woman and the wonder of married love, the importance of trust as the basis for community, and, following from that, the need for truthfulness.

Jesus came to set us free.  For blind obedience, he substituted insight into the real; for law, he substituted virtue; and for obligation imposed from outside, he substituted the inner call of enlightened conscience. 

Homily 2 - 2014

I was watching the News on the ABC last Thursday evening. A distraught woman was being interviewed. Not long before, her son had been murdered just after he had finished junior cricket practice at the Tyabb cricket ground. He had been murdered by his own father, the husband of the woman being interviewed.

The woman was obviously grieving and in shock. But what struck me was her total lack of bitterness, vindictiveness or thirst for revenge. As things turned out, she had herself suffered repeated incidents of domestic violence from the same man. All that she would say was that he had a severe mental illness. She said it with calmness and [at least it seemed to me] with gentleness and compassion. Her attitude, as I read it, affected me deeply. So different from what you see too frequently on TV – people baying for blood, fiercely intent on revenge!  Before jumping up and down, self-righteously witch-hunting for some one to blame, the media and the community would do well simply to pause and to contemplate in silence the response of that woman.

Where did her response come from? I noticed that the lad attended a Christian Community School. Did her compassion come from a heart formed by the heart of Jesus? – the Jesus who said as he hung tortured on the Cross, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. For me, hers was virtue deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, deeper than that of many, if not most, of us Christians … deeper, I wonder, than mine? It is hard to know how I would respond under pressure.  All I know is that, when hurt or contradicted, I easily slide from anger to accusation, perhaps not to the “You fool” or “You renegade” of today’s Gospel, but something equivalent or stronger – if not out loud, at least under my breath.

How do we get to that place of freedom, of responsibility and integrity [illustrated in those three instances in today’s Gospel] to which Jesus urges us? I am not a great advocate of a “Try harder!” morality. It helps to socialise children and adolescents; but it is pretty useless in bringing about deep change and real transformation. Perhaps the question is, How do we learn to love? How do we keep discovering the meaning and the possibilities of love? How do we become consistent?

I think that, for us to love, we need others to love us first – anyone, more than one! But we have to take time and stillness to believe them, and to come to terms with the astounding truth. I think the ultimate freedom comes as I believe that God loves me – as I sink into that love, accept my bewilderment, give up the struggle for independence and finally let it be.

In the meantime, we can keep praying for that distraught, bereft and struggling mother.

 Homily 3 - 2017

Jesus’ basic claim, his message when he began his public ministry, was, “The kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news”. 1. The kingdom of heaven is close at hand, 2. Repent, and 3. Believe the good news. In Mt’s Gospel, ‘repent’ is essentially, change how you think; believe means trust, take the punt. The kingdom of heaven is the way society is, the way people experience life, once they have begun to see God differently, have seen the difference really as good news, and are doing their best to relate to God, themselves and to each other according to their new insight into and surrender to the mystery of God.

The crucial thing is to be open to see God differently, and that is not a once-and-for -all achievement but a continuing adventure. Elsewhere Jesus makes it clear that God is love, not just loves sometimes or some people, but simply is love, and cannot not be love. Jesus also makes clear that love in its essential self is unconditional. We basically cannot fully understand that. We probably think we do. My experience, my conviction, is that we don’t. We can keep on being surprised, pleasantly surprised. I am even inclined to think that we feel uneasy with unconditional love. We like to think that, to some extent at least, when we are on the receiving end, that we have somehow deserved it, and have some say in it, have some sort of control over it; and that when we are giving it, we can sometimes have some expectations sometimes. Knowing that God’s love is unconditionally unconditional makes an unsettling difference. All God’s interactions with us flow from God’s sheer love. With God, everything is gift. Unconditional love makes all the difference. Embarking on the journey, saying yes to it, trusting it, is what is essentially involved in the invitation to ‘Repent’.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven”, that is, you will not experience what it is like to live in relationship with a God whom you know loves you, unconditionally. Where did they fall short? They were good Jews. They were obedient to God and God’s laws. They saw themselves so lucky to have such clear laws, such good laws. It was just that they had still to grow up. When you were children, you needed clear directives from your parents. You needed realistic and adequate rewards and punishments. It was the necessary way to socialize you – and our society is the worse off today because a lot of children lack that basic socialization. But, please God, you do not treat your spouse in the same way good parents treat their children. You do not lay down laws and demand obedience under threat of punishment. When two mature people deeply love each other, everything is different.

When you relate to God, do you see yourself, feel yourself, as child or adult?

As you read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, do you hear Jesus giving a whole lot more commandments in addition to the traditional ones? As I see it, Jesus was encouraging us to think outside the square, to recognize what makes sense when people appreciate their own and each other’s dignity as sharing the same life of God – adult brothers and sisters of Christ. He wanted to help us get a feel for what it means to relate to others from genuine, felt respect, wanting to love each other. St Augustine once wrote, “Love - and do what you want!” The urgency flows from your mature responsibility, the deeper virtue Jesus mentioned today, not from childlike obedience. Surely, that is how you see your relationship to your spouse, what guides your interactions?

As it really comes home to us that God unconditionally loves us, everything, including ourselves, becomes different.

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”.