This homily is based on Matthew 5:17-37.
In today’s Gospel reading, our Lord raises the bar beyond our usual moral comfort zones. It’s not enough that we don’t commit murder, he tells his listeners. Treating others with anger is sin enough. It’s great that we’re not committing adultery, he continues. But the bad news is, just nursing lust in our heart already makes us virtual adulterers.
Isn’t the Lord making here a couple of unreasonable asks? Why can’t we just stick to the good old Ten Commandments? The Lord knows they’re hard enough to follow!
The reason our Lord gives for raising the bar is that he wants us to “surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” These were the mortal enemies of the Lord–not so much because they plotted his downfall, which they did, but because their hearts were closed, wrapped securely around the safety of their litany of laws, which they imposed on the people without regard for their welfare. How often did they clash with the Lord because the Lord wanted to heal the sick on the Sabbath, while they insisted it was not permitted, never mind the suffering of the people, The scribes and the Pharisees stuck to the letter of their law at the expense of its spirit, never mind if in the process, they forgot that every single one of their laws was formulated to help people.
Our Lord Jesus invites us not so much to flout the laws–earlier in this same reading he clarified that he had not come to abolish them–but to go beyond them. It’s not enough to avoid committing the actual sinful acts; it is important to watch out for their very roots–in this case, anger for murder and lust for adultery.
The trouble with temptations is that they don’t come in the obvious form of the devil in red tights. Temptations have a way of creeping us quietly from behind us, and they strike when we least expect them, when we are least on our guard, when we are most complacent and vulnerable. What the Lord is teaching us today is that if we don’t watch it, the private, unfulfilled, and seemingly harmless angry or lustful thoughts may, before we know it, lead to the slippery slope of sin.
Just as importantly, the thoughts we harbor have a way of defiling us and defining us. All we need to do is recall one of my favorite quotes from the late Carrie Fisher: