I am eight years old and my mom’s birthday is coming up soon. I have a dollar or two saved up from my allowance so I ask her what she wants for her birthday. She says for me get along with my brothers, stop fighting and arguing with them and she will be happy. Get along with my brothers! This is way too much. I’m thinking: why can’t I just do what everyone does and buy something or make something. Isn’t that good enough?
And, of course, that is one of Jesus’ points today. It is good to follow the law, for as Jesus says, not the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law and anyone who teaches against the law will be the least in heaven. So the law is good, but it’s not good enough.
Without law, society as we know it would be impossible. Laws are the basis of all civil societies. Without laws, anarchy reigns. Jesus knows that. But Jesus wants more. Jesus does not call us to be civil; he calls us to be holy. Holy cannot be legislated, for holy is in our hearts. Holy is in our souls. Holy cannot come from Congress or the President or the Supreme Court. Holy comes from God - the law fulfilled by the love of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Following today’s passage (Mt 5:17-19), Jesus shows us how love fulfills the law. Of course, we should not kill one another, it’s unlawful, and we are subject to judgment. But anger, calling names, or thinking badly of one another is not against the law, yet it is unholy, for it disparages one whom God created out of love in his very image and likeness. Anger subjects us to the judgment of God.
Of course, we should not exact undue retribution – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth seems fair. But this “just” retribution is unholy, for it contradicts the unconditional love that God has for us, the infinite mercy God showers upon us, and the eternal life that God has prepared for us. Thus we should “turn the other cheek,” “walk the extra mile,” and “give the cloak with the tunic.”
One of the most important and, it would seem, most holy parts of the Jewish law was laws regarding sacrifice, the bringing gifts to the altar of God. Just so, we have laws which obligate us to participate in the Eucharist. Yet Jesus insists that true holiness – reconciling with one another, loving each other as God loves us, forgiving one another as God forgives us – is a necessary prelude to bringing gifts to God. It is this day-after-day holiness which is our best and truest gift to God.
Of course, holiness is a much higher bar than mere civility and following the law. I understood this even as an eight-year old boy who simply wanted to buy a present for his mom. Instead of my easily purchased gift, she wanted what Jesus wanted – holiness. Imagine that, my mom may not have known the Sermon on the Mount by heart, but she certainly knew it in her heart.
Holiness seems hard, that’s an understatement. It is actually impossible for us to be holy simply by trying our best or by obeying the law. But it is very possible to live holy lives with the grace of God, a grace that, as Pope Francis stated in one of his recent homilies, is offered to all – believers, atheists, and everyone in between.
The only way to be holy is accept this universal grace. This is faith. This is the faith that saves us. This is the faith that helps us realize the holiness and the godliness with which we were created. This is faith that gives us the desire, courage and strength to obey the fulfilled law of love.
Only with this faith can we hope to meet the challenge that Jesus lays down for us at the end of Matthew 5 – be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.