In his Sermon on the Mount, which we’re reading these Sundays, Jesus takes to another level what the law says or what most people say. “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not kill’…you have heard it said ‘you shall not commit adultery.’…But I say to you.” “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’…You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I say to you.”
He asks for a higher, more nuanced morality from us, because we are children of God and not children of the world.
The British novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdock, describes in her novels a world of bright, successful law-abiding people who consider themselves above traditional morality. They’re not murders, or rapists or criminals, for sure. They wouldn’t think of breaking the law, because they and their interests are protected by law.
But civil laws say nothing about most of life, and Murdock’s characters decide for themselves how to live, according to their own wisdom. They make their choices based on what they want or what’s best for them. They’re sincere people, but because of the way they think morally, their lives and the lives of others get messed up.
Murdoch’s characters – and they represent a large portion of educated, western society today – have a strong belief in their own wisdom. They decide their own morality. They’re masters of their own fate and can’t believe that their wisdom might be limited or fed by their own fantasies or could affect others. What’s right for them, is right.
What are the consequences of that kind of moral thinking? You can see it in broken friendships, broken families, broken lives, and a society not built on common norms, but on personal choice.
How different is the idea of choice in Sunday’s reading from Sirach. “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you. (Sirach 15,15) The commandments are wise guides and Jesus extends them further, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. We should learn from this wisdom, search into it and hope it becomes part of the way we think and act.
“You have heard it said, ‘Choose for yourself’…But I say to you…