Please watch today’s homily by selecting the video below:
Because Jesus is often called “Son of David” in the New Testament and so many of the psalms are attributed to David, we may tend to idealize the great king.. David united the tribes of Israel and established a nation with its capitol in Jerusalem. Jesus himself appealed to David’s example when his enemies accused his hungry disciples of eating grain on the Sabbath.
Yet, the long narrative we read in the Book of Samuel today and tomorrow at Mass offers a darker picture of the famous king– he was a murderer and an adulterer. David had Urriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier in his army, killed so that he could have Bathsheba, his wife. (2 Samuel 11, 1-17)
Psalm 51 is the response we make at Mass after listening to the king’s sordid deed. Tradition says it’s David’s own response after he realized what he had done. The Book of Psalms calls Psalm 51: “A psalm of David when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
And of my sin cleanse me.”
The psalm, the first of the Seven Penitential Psalms, asks God to take away both the personal and social effects of our sin, for our sins do indeed have emotional, physical and social consequences. Only God can “wash away” our guilt and cleanse our heart. Only God can “rebuild” the walls that our sins have torn down and the lives they have harmed. Only God can restore joy to our spirits and help us “teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you.” Only God can bring us back to his friendship.
In the scriptures, David is a complex figure– a saint and a sinner. He’s really a reflection of us all. That’s why our response in the psalm at Mass today takes the form that it does –
“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
Matthew’s Gospel contains many indications of the Jewishness of Jesus. In today’s reading at Mass (Matthew 5, 17-37), we can see him as part of the Jewish world in which he lived. A loyal, practicing Jew, he participated fully in his religion and culture. He kept the Jewish feasts and observed the Jewish laws; he was in the synagogue every Sabbath.
Yet, Jesus was not uncritical of the Jewish world in which he lived. That’s what we hear in today’s gospel.
Some of his words seem harsh to us– “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” But this is Jesus speaking as the Jewish prophets spoke. They used harsh words to make their point. Like them, he spoke strongly when religious standards were neglected and not being fulfilled. “I came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” His criticism extended to the Jewish leadership of his day– the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus criticizes especially a way of living that focuses on externals–and sometimes just a few externals– and doesn’t focus enough on inner thinking and inner judgments. For example, he mentions a commandment “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But there are other ways you can destroy people. You may not go to jail for them either, but you can destroy people by anger or demean them by looking at them as fools. Strong words, but he’s making a point and his point isn’t just for his time and place.
“ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, you may not go to jail for your thinking, but your thoughts can poison your appreciation of people. I think that’s what pornography does. It poisons your mind and lessens your respect for others.
By the way, that picture above is King David. You know where his thoughts got him.
Watch your thinking and your judging, Jesus says. The way you think is critical to the way you live. The way you look at things within is crucial to the way you do things without.
The final parts of our gospel are about divorce procedures and taking oaths. Some people in his time loved to see life in terms of law; some today still do. All you have to do is keep within the law, be law abiding, live legally and that’s enough. As we see in this gospel, Jesus never saw keeping laws enough. They’re just a start.
In today’s gospel Jesus seems to almost equate anger and harsh words with murder. They’re liable to judgment, he says.
Does that exaggerate the damage words can cause? If you think about it, angry words can just about destroy someone. Killing someone’s spirit, taking away someone’s reputation may not draw a jail sentence here on earth, but God sees the harm that’s done. Sometimes, so do we.
Murder takes away physical life; we also need to respect another kind of life that people have. “Respect” is a wonderful word. It means “to look again” in Latin, to look again at someone and see a value we may have denied or missed, to constantly reassess how we judge another. Jesus tells us to do this as we come before God’s altar to offer our gift. It’s one of the reasons behind the sign of peace we offer our neighbor at Mass. It’s a sign of respect.
As we look honestly and respectfully at others, we also have to look honestly at ourselves. Respect is a form of love, St. Paul of the Cross writes. It’s “love toward your neighbor, putting up with the faults of others, looking at all with charity and compassion, having a good opinion of everyone and a bad opinion only of yourself. A simple eye lets you see your neighbor as full of virtues and yourself full of vices, but without discouragement, peacefully, humbly.” (Letter 525)
make me an instrument of your peace,
bringing life and hope to others, not death.
The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a Teacher as well as a healer. He fulfills this role in a particular way in the 5th to the 8th chapters of the gospel, which describe him going up a mountain, sitting down and calling his followers to come around him, and then beginning to teach them. We know this lengthy part of the Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount.
His teachings begin with the promise that those who listen and follow what he has to say will be blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer persecution…” There are blessings, beatitudes, that we receive by following his teaching.
Now, the values he teaches not only make us better people, but they make the world better. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. The world is better when we act his way, he says; it’s filled with light and more alive.
Jesus says his teaching is not totally new. In his Sermon on the Mount he assures his followers that he’s following teachers and prophets before him. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt 5, 17)
Yet, he says he understands the law better than the teachers before him understood it. He will also fulfill that law better than the prophets before him did.
The first law he comments on in the Sermon on the Mount is one we might not expect. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” That’s a basic commandment: “Don’t kill people.” “You shall not kill.” Life is God’s first gift. God gives life, God nourishes and sustains life, and it’s for God to take life away.
People through history have recognized the great value of life itself. It’s wrong to take the life of another human being by murder or violence. The reason it’s wrong is because murder and violence destroy what God has made and what God cares for and what God loves. Murder is a capital offense in our system of justice; the murderer has to be brought to justice.
We rejoiced this week when we saw violence avoided in Egypt; thousands of lives could have been lost in that volatile situation. If that country evolves in a non-violent way–we pray it does– it will be a wonderful sign to the rest of the world that war and violence are not the only way to bring about change.
Yet Jesus did not stop with the command not to kill. “I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother or sister will be liable to judgment.” Murder and violence are not the only ways that take away life. Anger also does it.
What does Jesus mean when he condemns anger against others? He certainly does not mean that anger itself is wrong. He was angry at times, the gospels report. Anger is a neutral emotion which often provides the impetus to confront evil and to do something hard that has to be done.
The scenes from Egypt this week showed us angry crowds taking to the streets to overthrow an unjust government. Anger gave them the power to resist before the prospects of a harsh suppression.
Yet, when they succeeded, their anger turned to joy and celebration. They had won.
The anger Jesus condemns is an anger that continues and does not end. It’s an anger that doesn’t forgive, that lasts, poisoning the one who holds on to it and killing the one it’s directed at.
It’s an anger without patience or respect. It refuses to leave anything to God. We must beware of an anger like that.