Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Feb. 16.
Do you know the difference between a crime and a scandal? A crime is a violation of the law. A scandal is a misdeed — whether a legal violation or not — by someone whom we hold to a higher standard.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the Law, but rather to hold us to a higher standard. Jesus’ position is that we fulfill the Law not merely by doing what the Law says, but rather by doing what God intends.
And for this reason, God gives us grace: grace to understand his will enshrined in the Law and grace to act in accord with it. Just like he gives us the grace to understand his will in every other area of his life.
Today Jesus teaches us this higher standard in terms of three of the commandments: You shall not kill or commit adultery or take false oaths. If all that matters is the letter of the Law, then we have every incentive to look for loopholes that will enable us to circumvent the Law’s intent without violating its provisions: That wasn’t killing; it was capital punishment. That wasn’t murder; it was abortion. That wasn’t adultery; neither of us is married. That wasn’t infidelity; there was no intercourse. That wasn’t a lie; it was marketing, a little repackaging of the truth.
Jesus means that divine law should not be interpreted narrowly as God’s minimum requirements, such that only these infractions will make us liable to prosecution on Judgment Day. We will be judged not according to our compliance with the letter of God’s law, but rather according to our compliance with what we know of God’s will revealed in that law, and thus our response to God’s grace.
The purpose of God’s law is to teach us how God wants us to live.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus then goes on to unpack God’s intent in prohibiting killing, adultery and false oaths. By forbidding us to take human life, God intends that we live in harmony with each other and treat each other with respect, and Jesus holds us to this higher standard. Therefore anger, abusive language and contemptuous treatment of others are sinful violations of God’s intent and if we remain unreconciled with each other we will have to answer for it. This is so important that we shouldn’t bring our gifts to the altar until we’re reconciled. That’s why we start every Mass with a Penitential Rite and exchange a sign of peace before Communion.
By prohibiting adultery, God intends that we be faithful in marriage — and avoiding illicit intercourse is not all that’s at stake here. You can be unfaithful to your spouse without ever actually doing anything sexual with another person, for instance through the lustful pursuit of power, prestige and possessions — wedding yourself to your job — not all lustful thoughts have to do with sex.
Greed is lust for possessions. Ambition is lust for power. Pride is lust for prestige. All of these can be marriage-destroying forms of infidelity — putting something else ahead of the spouse. Divorce is almost always the result of some sort of infidelity — whether sexual or not — on the part of at least one of the spouses and is often the source of further infidelity.
By prohibiting false oaths, God intends that we be honest, and again Jesus holds us to a higher standard. We put people under oath to try to force them to speak the truth. But from honest people oaths are not necessary, a simple yes or no is really sufficient. And that’s the kind of people God intends us to be.
What’s true regarding these three commandments applies to the other seven as well. You and I will one day be judged not according to the letter of the Law, but rather according to a higher standard: our response to God’s grace, our compliance with God’s will.
If you really open yourself to God’s grace, he will lead you to a fuller understanding of his intent enshrined in the Law and then give you the ability to comply with it.
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