The Gospel reading last week was pretty rough. Anger against family and neighbor, dealing with lust and obligations towards others. Jesus sets the bar very high. The demands this week don’t get any easier…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He beats us up and it’s not even Lent yet!
We need to understand what Jesus is teaching from several perspectives. William Barkley was a Scottish author, radio and television presenter. He was a minister in the Church of Scotland minister, and Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow. He wrote a popular set of Bible commentaries on the New Testament that sold 1.5 million copies.
In his commentary on this week’s Gospel, Barkley provides the first clue into what Jesus was getting at. Barkley writes that “Every person has a split personality. There is part of him which is attracted to good, and part of him which is attracted to evil. So long as a man is like that, an inner battle is going on inside him. One voice is inciting him to take the forbidden thing; the other voice is forbidding him to take it.”
Barkley mentioned that, Plato likened the soul to a charioteer whose task it was to drive two horses. The one horse was gentle and biddable and obedient to the reins and to the word of command; the other horse was wild and untamed and rebellious. The name of the one horse was reason; the name of the other was passion. Life is always a conflict between the demands of the passions and the control of the reason.
The world looks upon, and judges behavior. Rightly so. But God judges thoughts. We read in 1 Samuel 16:7 that God tells the Prophet Samuel that God rejects Jesse’s son Eliab as King of Israel. ”But the LORD said to Samuel: ‘Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him.’ God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart.”
Jesus’ take on the Law and judging our thoughts was profoundly right. Why? Because thoughts eventually lead to bad actions. Jesus’ way is the only way to guarantee safety and security in society.
It’s not merely about overcoming sin. The second point is that Jesus is calling us to become the best versions of ourselves. St. Irenaeus says that ”The glory of God is man fully alive.” The U.S. Army says to ”Be all you can be.” Barkley writes that
An offering that is fit for God should be without blemish. The Greek idea of perfection is functional. A thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, and designed, and made. A man or woman is perfect if he realizes the purpose for which he was created and sent into the world.
This is good and noble.
This is also impossible.
That leads us to the third point. Jesus is not demanding a perfect human being.
Jesus is describing a ”transformed human life.” Jesus is describing a journey. ”The way, the truth, and the life.” This idea comes from Monsignor Charles Pope* He writes that Jesus describes signs that we are transformed human beings:
- Jesus Christ begins to live His life in us (Galatians 2:20).
- The power of His cross goes to work in us and puts sin to death (Romans 6:2).
- Jesus increases and we decrease (John 3:30).
- Our old self is crucified with Him so that sin will no longer master us (Romans 6:6-7).
Hence, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is not giving us a rigorous set of rules to follow (and they are rigorous), but is describing what the transformed human person is like. His description is not an impossible ideal but is set forth as the normal Christian life. The normal Christian is a transformed human person.
Jesus sets a standard that no one can achieve. Barkley writes that ”The new standard kills all pride, and forces us to Jesus Christ. He alone can enable us to rise to that standard which he has set before us.” Monsignor Pope echoes this sentiment. “It is the power in the Blood and the cross. The power comes to us by grace. It is all a work of God.”
How can we do this concretely this Lent? Rather than coming up with the “Lenten to-do list,” we can simply enter into the various healing encounters the Church offers. At St. Monica, this would include:
- Monsignor Pope is the Pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian. This is a parish in Washington, DC. He is the moderator of the Community In Mission web site. He’s originally from Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary. He was ordained in 1989 and has been a pastor since 2000. He has the distinction of having led Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and at the White House.