“Going Deeper” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, February 12, 2023

Our gospel today presents a flavor of Jesus’ teaching from what is called his “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew, chapters 5-7. We need to remember that his teaching is directed towards his “disciples”, people who are intentional about their faith in Jesus and want to follow him closely and imitate him as perfectly as possible. If some of Jesus’ teaching here seems rather unrealistic and harsh, it is because Jesus expects his disciples to be prepared to go deeper into the demands of living the Christian life, and not just remain, as it were, on the surface of things.

Throughout his teaching ministry on earth, Jesus was accompanied by different kinds of followers. There were those openly hostile to him, such as the scribes and Pharisees, the spiritual leaders of the day. There were people on the fringe, interested enough to pay some attention to him, especially when he was performing miracles and healings, but otherwise not really interested in committing themselves to becoming disciples. And there were Jesus’ disciples, those who had, as Peter states somewhere in the gospel, “given up everything to follow Jesus”. To them, Jesus commits his deepest, most challenging, and most visionary teaching. He is training them up to be the future leaders of his Church.

Each of us, brothers and sisters, have to make up our own minds and hearts about where we stand in relationship to Jesus and his teaching. And we will find ourselves in one or other of those three groups. Even if we find ourselves fiercely resistant and perturbed by some of his teachings, that is far better,  in many ways, than a merely casual, indifferent approach to him. People who are passionate about things, who deeply care about life and its meaning, and who seek and strive after a philosophy they can give themselves to, are more likely to be won to Christ than those who amble along on the surface of things, paying lip service at most to things of God. Think of St Paul. At one time an ardent persecutor of the Church and all things to do with Christ, he became, after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Christ’s greatest and most ardent disciple and evangelist. There are many testimonies throughout history, including in today’s world , of such personal conversions. That is why if you are praying for members of your family who have lapsed from their faith, those who are especially critical and angry towards Christ and his Church, although they can be very hurtful in some of their attitudes, are often easier to pray into conversion, than those members who are pretty indifferent to things of faith. Sometimes with the latter, nothing short of a personal disaster that drives them to their knees, and into the arms of Jesus, in repentance and prayer will work , and you might pray for them along those lines. 

“Unless your righteousness exceeds those of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. These words of Jesus, in their context and their time, would have been shocking to his disciples, and to any scribe or Pharisee who happened to be listening in. The disciples, like all ordinary Jews, took it for granted that their spiritual leaders were way beyond them in their holiness, in their spirituality, in their closeness to God. They would have assumed, and, here, the scribes and Pharisees would have agreed with them, that these leaders were destined for front seats in heaven. So for Jesus, a person who had a spiritual authority and power that put him beyond even the scribes and Pharisees, to declare that their leaders would not enter the kingdom of heaven, would have been earth-shattering news to them. It might have made them say to themselves: ”Well, if even those good and holy men can’t even get into heaven, what chance for any of us?” The trouble was, and Jesus does not fail to point this out in the gospels, these so-called good and holy leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees and the chief priests, were anything but good and holy. They lived, for the most part, on the surface of things, caught up in legalism and protocol and scrupulosity, and believed that, because they kept the Sabbath and said their long prayers and did their fasting and almsgiving, and offered the right kinds of animal sacrifices at the right times of the year, and in the right manner, and made sure everyone noticed it, that they were perfect. 

And Jesus said, “Yes, all well and good. But what about the deeper things of faith, what about being holy at the level of the heart?  You might not murder anyone physically, but what about murdering someone’s spirit through constant condemnation and criticism, what about destroying someone’s reputation through lies, false accusation, slander, libel? Yes, you might not commit adultery physically but what of the adultery of the heart, looking at women, even your own wives, as nothing more than sex objects, there to satisfy your own sexual appetites, and never seeking a deeper relationship and communion with them, seeing them as your equal in the sight of God? How about your tendency to turn a blind eye to your real moral faults and failings, while focusing only on your external behavior as proving your goodness and holiness? St Benedict once wrote to his religious brothers and sisters: ”Be holy, don’t just look holy.” In the book of Samuel, we are told that “Man looks at the surface of things, God looks at the heart.”

You might feel like that about priests and nuns, brothers and sisters, assuming that they must be holier and better and more righteous than anyone else. Not necessarily true, brothers and sisters, and you do us no favors, and you do yourselves no favors,  in putting us up on a pedestal. Each of us, in our preaching and teaching, know we are just “mediocrity preaching perfection” as one priest put it some years back. As the old saying has it, “when you assume something, you make an ass out of you and me.“ Why do we go on preaching perfection, then, you might ask, when we so often suck at it?  Because Jesus preached perfection, and so must we. In fact, in next weekend’s gospel, Jesus will specifically say: ”You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. 

Doesn’t Jesus know that we are not God, that we are far from perfect, so often merely mediocre in our discipleship? Of course he does. Does that stop him calling us higher and higher to greater standards of holiness and righteousness? Of course not! During the last week, the daily readings at Mass have retold the story of creation from the book of Genesis. The writer carefully describes God creating the various aspects of creation, such as the moon and sun and stars, the plants and the trees, the animals and birds, and God looking at each of them and finding them “good”. But when he at last creates human beings, he looks at his handiwork and finds them “very good”. Because the writer says, God made us in his own “image and likeness”. There is something of the divine in each of us, and therefore, unlike any other part of creation, we are the closest to God, as we see in Genesis, when God, having created human beings, stopped creating and rested. There was nothing better than human beings that he could create.

Of course, as we know, Satan came along and led our first ancestors into sin, and the corruption of the perfect, the divine in us. But God did not give up on us, or on his work in us. In the fullness of time, he implemented the next stage of his plan and sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as the perfect image of humankind, to destroy the work of sin and Satan in us and restore us, through our baptism , back to a renewed humanity, which once more, makes us “sharers in the divine nature”, as St Peter tells us in his second letter (1:4).

Once more, then, we can become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. When we were created, God saw us as “very good”, as I have said. That means we have the potential to reach the heights of goodness, and become saints. But also we have the potential to become very bad, and become demonic. That staggering choice remains always before us . As our first reading reminds us: ”The Lord has put before each person life and death, good and evil, and whichever one chooses, that shall be given”. It is no-one else’s fault, not our parents, nor our upbringing, nor the bad example of priests and religious , not even God, it is no-one’s fault, if we fail, except ours. That is the reality of Catholic Christian teaching, and it goes all the way back to the earliest pages of the Bible, and reiterated by Jesus and the Church up to this present day. We are given along with our creation, the gift of free will, and no matter how much our upbringing, our culture, our circumstances erode that, there remains in each of us an area of freedom of choice that can never be taken away. Unless we choose to give it away, to Satan, to carnal pleasures, to an ideology or guru. And that is still down to us, to our own free choice. 

So much of present day wisdom and ideology wants to deny that, and, in effect, make us human beings our own “gods” with our own standards of right and wrong, good and evil. Which is why so much of modern day “wisdom” is “doomed to perish”, as St Paul declares emphatically in today’s second reading. But the word of God will endure forever. And Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), which means that his teaching never changes, much as today’s culture might demand it change, demand the Church change and “update” its teaching to be more in line with the liberal “woke” intelligentsia of today. Listen well, brothers and sisters, and be ready to refute anyone who teaches such nonsense. The Church, not even the Pope, is free to change the fundamental teachings of the faith. Because they go back all the way to Jesus, and to his heavenly Father. And the fundamentals do not change . Ever.

We can strive for holiness, and we should. The Catholic Church teaches us, in its document on the Church at the Second Vatican Council, that every one, man or woman or child, clergy, religious or laymen, is called to holiness, to righteousness, to spiritual maturity and perfection. Yes, we fail, often. I fail, often. But the sacrament of reconciliation is available to us, to everyone, so that our sins can be absolved, and the grace lost through sin can be restored to us, in what the Church fathers called “a second baptism”.  Those who want to be true disciples will avail themselves of that opportunity for free grace. Those who want to remain on the surface of things won’t. 

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees , you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. A shark must remain always on the move, going forward, or else it dies. If we are not persuaded of the necessity and call of the gospel, of Jesus, to make greater and greater strides in the way of holiness and discipleship, we may one day find ourselves holding in our hands a dead shark.