As we listen to the words of the Gospel today, it is important that we keep in mind that the evangelist is providing us with a formulaic rendering of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments, in particular the 5th, 6th, and 8th commandments. Over and over again, we hear Jesus say: “You have heard it said. . . but I say to you.”
It would be easy for us to suppose that Jesus is simply expanding the commandment by adding on extra conditions and prohibited actions or words. However, there is something far more powerful going on. Jesus is changing the nature of our covenant with God.
The commandments were handed down to the children of Israel at Sinai through Moses, who acted as an intermediary between the people and God. The people were told, “If you will be my people, then I will be your God.” Obedience to the commandments was the “proof of the pudding.” Being God’s people was accomplished by keeping the commandments. By doing certain things and avoiding others, the Israelites were stating that they were God’s people and that, consequently, they expected God to keep his end of the bargain. The whole Law including the way the people thought about the Law was based upon the “theology of retribution.” Do good things for God, and God will also do good things for you!
Jesus changes the way we look at the Law. He begins with the presupposition that we are God’s people. As a consequence we are to act like God’s people. In other words, the basis of our covenant with God is not based upon performance but on our identity. In each of the commandments of which he speaks, Jesus moves from the external action or performance to the intention behind the act. In other words, if we are who we say we are, our intentions will never lead us into the actions. The laws against murder, adultery, and bearing false witness only treat the symptoms. Jesus attacks the disease of sin at its foundation.
This is not to say that thoughts and feelings are sins. Our minds are such that we can hardly control how we feel or what we think. Thoughts and feelings are neither good nor bad. They simply are. However, when those thoughts and feelings lead us to the intention to sin, we have crossed the line into the realm of sin. Temptation comes at us from all sides all day long. When we realize that we are tempted, we are asked to make a decision based upon our identity. Is this something a child of God would do? If not, we dismiss the temptation and move on. Dwelling on the temptation and fantasizing about it can move us from temptation to intent. This is what Jesus is speaking about in the Gospel.
In the first reading from Sirach, we have the clearest statement about human free will in all of the Scriptures. Notice that the word “choose” is used three times in a very few verses. It is all about choice. Jesus builds upon that by telling us that what is really necessary is to choose to be who we say we are.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator