By Orlando Hernandez
This Thursday’s Gospel continues with the extremely challenging statements that our Lord pronounces in the Sermon on the Mount:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5: 20-24)
Our faith and religion is the great gift of God, but we can spoil this gift if we use it as an excuse to feel that we are “better” than our neighbor. Even prayer and piety can unfortunately be used as a cover for inhumane behavior. Our Lord points out the dangerous practices of self-righteousness that can lead to the escalation of conflict which condemns us not only to the loss of love of neighbor, but even to the total disregard for the sanctity of human life, whether through unfettered anger, cold calculation, or simple indifference. We find ourselves imprisoned by hate and guilt: “Your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” (Mt 5: 25)
Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote explores this sad situation when he talks about the two sides in the Civil War: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,and each invokes His aid against the other.” I imagine those prayers and see them as ferocious darts, adding to the countless wounds of our Jesus on the Cross. What is right and what is wrong? Why is there so much divisiveness in our country, in our world? Is our real “opponent” happily leading us in chains to the Judge? Are we already in a hopeless Gehenna, where truth and mercy are incinerated along with God’s goal of human unity within His loving embrace?
My conservative son complains that those on “the left” are merely hypocrites, calling themselves compassionate while they approve of the killing of unborn life. This kind-hearted couple, my friends, who were influential in my conversion, now call themselves “Buddhists.” After decades of being zealous Pentecostals, they now feel betrayed by their fellow fundamentalists, who support so many things that they consider divisive and cruel.
Lincoln goes on to say in his speech, “With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” How do we begin to do this? How can I gauge what is “the right as God gives us to see?” How can I hold fast to love, to tolerance, to acceptance of so many people who seem so difficult to me? Only in prayer, in faithful surrender to the love of God can I find the way out of Gehenna, to defeat the real “opponent”, the accuser, the divider. Only God can give me the strength.
But oh, sometimes I feel totally bound up by these negative aggressive thoughts. My loving wife sees me there with that disturbed look she knows so well, and tells me, “Snap out of it! Look around!” Out of concern for me she got me this challenging checklist by Richard Rohr OFM, that she got at her last retreat. It sounds a lot like the Sermon on the Mount. And it is titled “What Might A Joyful Spirit Be?” Joyfulness seems to be the only way out of the prison, and this joy is the Grace that only communion with Jesus can give. Here are some examples, which can be fruitful conduits to prayer:
“ When you do not need to be right.
When you no longer need to compete–not even in your own head.
When you do not need to analyze or judge things as in or out, positive or negative, black or white.
When you can follow the intelligent lead of your heart.
When you are curious and interested, not suspicious and interrogating.
When you do not brood over injuries.
When you do not need to humiliate, critique, or defeat those who have hurt you- not even in your mind.
When you can let go of obsessive or negative thoughts.
When you do not divide and always condemn one side or group.
When you can find truth on both sides.
When you can critique and also detach from the critique.
When you can wait, listen, and learn.
When you can admit it was wrong and change.
When you can actually love without counting the cost.
When you can live satisfied without resolution or closure.
When you can find God in all things.”