HOMILY LENT WEEK 01 06 – Year I
Following the Way of the Lord
(Dt 26:16-19; Ps 119; Mt 5:43-48)
A tourist stopped by a roadside café as he was travelling through an Indigenous community. He asked an elder sitting outside, smoking a pipe, “Where does this road go?” The elder calmly replied, “Road stays; you go.”
Today’s readings provide us with a clear, challenging message: We are to walk in God’s ways by being as holy and compassionate as our heavenly Father is holy and compassionate.
The first reading from Deuteronomy takes us part of the way. God wants to be exclusively our God, not sharing the space with any other false gods. God also wants us to be God’s own treasured people. To do this, we are to follow the Law that God provided, and to be a holy people.
Psalm 119 takes us a bit further, around a bend in the road, perhaps. This psalm is all about the Law. I believe every stanza except one (because nothing is perfect in this world) contains a reference to the Law. In today’s passages, those references are: “way, law, decrees, precepts, statutes” and “ordinances.” The psalm response tells us that happiness flows from following the law of the Lord.
In the Gospel, it is as if Jesus, eager for us to really be God’s people, places us in a high-speed vehicle and zips us way down the road to where it disappears on the horizon.
That is because Jesus speaks as the new Torah. The Jews consider the Torah, the first five books of the bible, holy, sacred and sacrosanct. They are the ultimate authority for the scribes and rabbis. In a sense, that is comparable to our Protestant cousins who claim “scripture alone” as their highest authority, resisting the Catholic balance of the written and lived word of God that is actually found in the Acts of the Apostles: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28) where the apostles and elders of the church make a decision, with the Holy Spirit, that sets up a tradition to be lived by the church.
In the Torah, we find the highest law is the great Shema of Judaism (Love God with your whole being – Dt 6:4-9). Also in the Torah is an obscure law in Leviticus 19:18 (Love your neighbour as you love yourself) that Jesus took and elevated to an equal status with the great Shema in giving us his new commandment.
In today’s gospel, Jesus truly speaks as the new Torah – “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” These are revolutionary words – blasphemy for the Jews – that Jesus would dare to place himself above the Torah. Yet there it is for all to see, when we consider all his teaching. Here is the new law as Jesus, the new Torah, actually taught it, in ascending order of difficulty and challenge:
- Love God with your whole being (the great Shema)
- Love your neighbour as you love yourself (Lev 19)
- Love one another as I have loved you (Jn 15:12)
- Love your enemies (today’s gospel)
- Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (today’s gospel)
Some commentary on all this is needed.
First, holiness can be defined as follows: “The fullness of Christian life and the perfection of love” (Vat II); “Enduring our imperfections patiently” (St. Therese of Lisieux); “God embracing us” (Paul Filibert); “Living in the truth without illusions” (Thomas Greene OMI). Holiness is wholeness, healed, being the person that God wants us to be.
Second, biblical perfection is not really perfection as such, for even Psalm 119 admits that there is no such thing as perfection in this life. A more accurate translation of this passage would be “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.”
Third, the false gods that the first reading speaks about are the temptations that Jesus faced in the desert: possessions, fame and power. The Big Book of A.A. states them as money, fame and power. I tend to describe them as possessions/pleasure; prestige/fame and power/control. Thomas Keating puts them as security, esteem and power, or his more nuanced version – security and survival, affection and esteem, power and control. These he calls instinctual biological needs that when not met as children, lead to a desperate drive to “find more and more of these symbols of basic human needs in our culture,” to the point where they become false gods.
Fourth, loving our enemies boils down to forgiving them from the heart, something that is usually beyond our power, and done by the power of the Holy Spirit. This goes way beyond the “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” of the Old Testament. Nothing is impossible for God, as Jesus told us.
So, the way to holiness, to being God’s treasured people, to having God as our only God, is to follow God’s way, to live the commandments Jesus taught us and to say “no” to these false gods.
The psalm assures us happiness comes to those who follow the law of the Lord. I would go a little further, following the teaching of St. Ignatius who discovered that when he read secular material, he had a moment of pleasure, but was left empty and sad in the end. However, when he read the lives of the saints, he was left inspired and uplifted for a long time. Similarly, every time we say “no” to a temptation of a false god, we will forgo a moment of pleasure, but experience a joy that will last for a long time. The choice is ours.
We have chosen to attend this Eucharist. That is truly following the law of the Lord, for Jesus commanded us to do this in memory of him.
May our celebration empower us to follow the way of the Lord, to be holy and compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate, and to truly be God’s treasured people with God alone as our God.