6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37 or 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37
Picture: cc Janielle Beh
Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to go out of your way to help someone? What was the experience like? Was it easy or difficult? I remember a story I once heard about a young man whose mother was always pestering him to help his little brother with his homework. But the guy was a busy college student. Where was he to find the time? He had so many other things to do. It was just too difficult.
Then, one day, he met a girl. And, suddenly, several nights a week, he was riding two buses across town just to get to her house to help her with her studies. He was quite obviously going out of his way for her. It was taking up a lot of his time. But he wasn’t complaining. Although it was far more inconvenient to help her than to help his own brother, it didn’t seem quite as hard to do.
So what do you think, sisters and brothers? Is it easy or difficult to go out of your way to help someone? Well, it all depends, doesn’t it? Sure. It depends on how far out of our way you have to go. But even more than that, it depends also on who the person is. It depends on the kind of relationship you have with him or her.
It may be helpful to keep this in mind today, because our readings seem to present us with a problem, a contradiction even. On the one hand, our first reading insists that it is possible for us to keep the commandments of God. In fact, the reading even makes it sound quite easy. We’re told that God has placed before us the choice between life and death, good and evil. All we have to do is to stretch forth our hands and choose. How much easier can it get?
But then, on the other hand, in the gospel, we find a rather different story. The reading begins with Jesus referring to the scribes and Pharisees. As we all know, these are experts in the Law. These are the guys who not only knew the Law like the backs of their hands. They also scrupulously kept it – every one of the more than 600 laws that were in force at the time. Yet, in the gospel, Jesus insists that if we don’t do better than these experts, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. According to Jesus, it’s not enough just to have expert knowledge of the Law. It’s not enough to know the Law in our heads. It’s not even enough to conform to the Law externally, to follow it with our hands. We need to go further. We need to do what the psalmist is praying for the strength to do in our responsorial psalm. We need to keep God’s law with all our heart. More than just refraining from killing someone, we mustn’t even wish for something bad to happen to him or her. More than simply not committing adultery, we shouldn’t even lust after someone in private. I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But to me, this sounds much harder than simply stretching forth your hand and choosing the good.
So which is it? Is keeping God’s law easy or difficult? And, even more important, how are we to go about doing it?
These questions are not easy to answer. At least not for me. I don’t find them easy because – and I’m sorry to say this – all too often, I approach God’s law in the same way that that young man, in our story, responded to his mother’s request that he help his younger brother with his homework. I respond by paying close attention to the demands that God is making on me. I want to know exactly what I am being asked to do, how much of my time and energy it will take, how far out of my way I must go. I analyse and I calculate. I count the cost to myself. If I have to go to Mass on Sunday, for example, I may want to know how late I can arrive, and how early I can leave, before I’m required to go to another Mass. Then, even if I do finally decide to keep God’s law, my heart is not quite in it. It’s as if, just once or twice, the young man in our story were finally to decide to help his brother with his homework. But he does it only so that he won’t have to listen to his mother’s nagging. He does it very reluctantly. And he makes sure his brother knows how he feels about it.
How difficult, how burdensome it is to keep God’s law in this manner. But, thankfully, this is not the only way to do it, is it? As the young man in our story discovered, it becomes far less difficult – even surprisingly easy – to go out of your way when you’re doing it for someone with whom you’re in love. Then your attention is not focused any longer on the difficult demands that are being made on you. All you’re worried about is doing whatever it takes to be with the one you love.
So, is it easy or difficult to keep the God’s law? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? It depends upon how much we love God. And to grow in our love of God, there is something that we need even more than the kind of expert knowledge of the Law that the scribes and Pharisees had.
What we need is what Paul is talking about in the second reading. Paul tells the Corinthians that what he is imparting to them is not the wisdom of the world, but God’s wisdom. What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, but that which God has revealed to us through the Spirit. This is the same mysterious thing that we heard Paul speak about last week. This wisdom goes beyond the mere intellectual knowledge of the Law. It consists in the deep experience, the heartfelt appreciation, of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Without counting the cost, Christ gave his life for us by hanging on the Cross. And it is by continually renewing our experience of his love, it is by continually keeping the sacrifice of Christ in our minds and in our hearts, that we find the strength to keep God’s law. Even if we have to go out of our way to do it.
So perhaps what we find in the first reading is true after all. As difficult as it may be to keep God’s law, perhaps all that we really need to do is to stretch out our hands and to choose. But when we do this, it’s not really toward the law itself that we are reaching out. Rather, when we stretch out our hands, it is to place them in the powerful yet loving hands of the God of the universe. We stretch out our hands in order to place them in the rough yet gentle hands of the Carpenter of Nazareth, the same hands that were pierced by nails so that we might have life.
It seems fitting to end our meditation today with this prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give and not to count the cost.
To fight and not to heed to wounds.
To toil and not to seek for rest.
To labor and not to seek reward.
Save that of knowing I do your will.
Sisters and brothers, to whose hands are you reaching out today?