Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37
I’m going to be bold and propose something to you that I believe is true and consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, even though many of us don’t realize it. Actually, I know it to be true, but it’s one of those truths that isn’t spoken often enough.
God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him.
By proposing this, I am not saying that sin doesn’t matter or that God will not act justly and condemn some—perhaps many—of those who call themselves Christians, and some—perhaps many—who are not. But God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him.
What do I mean by that? How is it that Christians might not be saved or that non-Christians might be saved? I would point to our first reading from Sirach as a clue.
He has set before you fire and water: to whichever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before a man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given to him.
This passage is an allusion to one from Deuteronomy, Moses’ final exhortation to the People of Israel as they prepare to pass into the Promised Land
I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.
Notice that the Promised Land is already theirs. All they have to do is grasp it. They just need to make the right choice. There’s no more searching and waiting. The choice is right there before them. They just have to choose the blessing, and that blessing resides in the words of the Law and the prophets.
Now you would think that you could look at two such clear choices—life or death—and know exactly which you would choose, but human history demonstrates that we’re really bad at this game. It goes back to the very beginning. Adam is plopped down in a garden where all these beautiful fruit trees and edible plants are, including the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells him, “You can eat from anything in the garden except that tree right there— the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
It’s right there next to the Tree of Life! Yet even then, which one does mankind choose?
Such is the nature of mankind. Part of the problem is with our vision—our perspective. We simply don’t see with clarity. Our vision is obscured, so how could we choose correctly? As St. Paul points out, “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him” or elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, “we see indistinctly as through a mirror.” If we can’t choose wisely from the obvious goods in front of us, how can we forestall those choices and choose what God has prepared for us—the greatest good that is so far beyond our understanding?
We live in a world that does its best to muddy the moral waters and culture that encourages relativistic moral thinking. Nothings is black and white, just shades of gray. Never mind that you can’t have gray without blending black and white. Now I’m not suggesting that all moral distinctions are easy to make, but some most certainly are, so long as we are willing to see.
That’s really Jesus’ point here in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s telling us that sometimes those gray areas we think exist between one choice and another, morally speaking, are not gray at all. The law says that those who commit murder are liable to the Law, but Jesus says anger at your brother, calling him Raqa or fool makes you liable.
The law says not to commit adultery, but Jesus says even looking at someone with lust is equal to adultery. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand, cut it off.
I don’t think Jesus is buying this stuff about shades of gray either. In fact, he intensifies every law: not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter of the Law will pass away, He says. If anyone sets the bar high for righteousness, it’s the King of Righteousness right here in this gospel.
But how can anyone hold up to such a standard? To never condemn someone in thought? To never think a lustful thought, or to see and not covet? How can we hold to that expectation always?
Well, fortunately, we get a bit of a break, because Jesus is using hyperbole in this passage. He’s exaggerating in order to drive home His point. He knows that we have difficulty seeing clearly, so He blows up the examples to the point that no one can miss the message.
Jesus doesn’t mean that we should be cutting off our errant hands and blinding ourselves for the least temptation. He is telling us to be aware of the source of all sin: the mind and heart, because they drive the human will. The will is the immediate source of an act. Any wrong act that is not motivated by will is simply an accident. But only a wrong act motivated by will can be sinful. Sin is always a matter of the will and of choice. And our will is informed and motivated first and foremost by what resides in our hearts and thoughts. To the Jewish mind of Jesus’ time, heart and mind would be one and the same.
So Jesus isn’t saying that your eye in itself is sinful, or that your hand is sinful. He’s saying that when you hold something in your mind and heart that can motivate your eye or your hand to sin, you are already on the pathway. If you dwell on evil thoughts, you are giving them a chance to grow into evil action. Jesus is telling the crowds and his disciples to go beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. You can murder someone literally, which most of us would never do, but we can also murder them in our thoughts, in our hearts, or in our words. We might not commit adultery, but if we’re harboring lustful thoughts toward someone, we’re already building the doorway that lets us into that room.
So at every moment, we need to be ready to resist, and resistance is a choice, which brings us back to what I said at the beginning of this homily.
God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him. Then how do we choose Him? Is it simply a matter of an altar call? Do we just believe in the Lord Jesus and recite the sinner’s prayer, as some of our Evangelical brethren believe? I’ll make another bold move now and propose, no. It is not enough to say the sinner’s prayer or simply “believe in the Lord Jesus” or to simply “believe in God.” St. James says that the “demons believe—and tremble.” If belief were enough for salvation, then demons would have no need to tremble.
So belief alone is not enough. We must act on belief. We must choose, because only in our choosing God do we demonstrate faith. Faith and belief are not equal. I can believe that our government has the ability to make dramatic societal change in our time but have no faith in them at all. Belief and faith aren’t the same thing.
If I have belief in God but don’t trust His will for me, then I have no faith. If I believe in an all-powerful benevolent being who wills what is best for me but constantly choose what is worst for me, then I have no faith. If I consistently choose myself over my neighbor, myself over God’s revelation, myself and temporal things over my own greatest good, I might have belief, but I don’t have true faith.
Faith is what allows me to choose the thing that draws me closer to God. Through faith, I can understand that I do not see all matters clearly. I can grasp that my notion of what is good for me is distorted. I can accept that my will might not lead me to the greatest good, but God’s will always does. So if I choose to align my will with God’s, I will be saved. If I choose to seek Him in everything I do, I will be saved. If I choose always to have my own way, then it will be, and it won’t be the will of God.
In the end, there are two outcomes. Either I say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God says to me, “Thy will be done.”