Gospel Reflection for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time – February 12th By Fr Brian Maher OMI
It is an interesting experience to read a Gospel passage, close your eyes, and say to yourself, “If I was actually there, listening to Jesus say these words, what would be my gut reaction to his words?”
The temptation is to quickly say, “I would believe what he said with an open heart”, and then move on. However, I wonder if that might be too easy!
Suppose I were to say to you, “The law of the Church says that you must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. But I am telling you that if there are tensions or conflicts at home, or you cannot forgive somebody who has betrayed your trust, then stay away from Mass, because it is worthless if you cannot first forgive. Go, make that phone call, say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you”, and then come to Mass.”
Or suppose I said, “You have been told of the dangers of the Internet and the damage social media can do to the mental health of many people. Now I say this to you: If you wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven you must close your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and delete all Internet providers from your devices.”
I cannot be certain, but I am fairly sure you would say, “… who does this guy think he is? Telling us what to do in our private time and legislating for our social life. How dare he!” Then, you would probably delete your link to this page and block the mail send. What’s more, you would be right, because it would be arrogant and presumptuous of me to say these things.
Yet this is exactly what Jesus does in today’s Gospel – not once but over and over again. When he says, “You have learned how it was said…”, he is referring to the Law of Moses – the Ten Commandments – the direct word of God to Moses, saying to him, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
Nothing for the Jewish people was more sacred than the Law of Moses… yet along comes this unknown healer and storyteller and without any authority whatsoever, he dismisses the Law of Moses, and sets his own opinion above it.
“But…” you might argue, “… Jesus was God, and he spoke with the authority of God.” In hindsight, after his death and resurrection and two thousand years of reflection, we can, of course, say that… but… those listening to the words of today’s Gospel did not have the luxury of hindsight. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was just another preacher, promising a coming Messiah, liberation from Rome, and a ‘happy ever after’ ending for Israel, with only his word to back it up.
None of us can really say how we would respond if we were there, listening to him speak, but, sadly and reluctantly, I have to admit that I am not at all confident that I would have been one of those who stayed and followed. My ‘oldest child’ desire to ‘follow the rules’ and ‘be good’ might make Jesus’ words a bit too radical for me!
It would take a deep spirituality, a lot of personal integrity and immense inner freedom not to feel threatened by someone speaking like that. There is, however, one way I could imagine myself accepting his words as true. If I had heard him speak before; if I had seen the way he interacted with the poor and ill; if I had seen him touch and heal people, then maybe, just maybe, I could accept these new words as coming from God.
This must have been the challenge for all those listening to him: Do I know this man well enough to trust his words and commit myself to the way of living he demands of his followers? Some of those listening were able to say to themselves, “Yes, I do know him well enough to trust him.” Peter, the Apostles, Mary Magdalene and the other small band of women and men who walked the roads with him were able to say ‘Yes’ to his words and accept his challenge.
Today, listening to these same words, I find myself wondering if perhaps we face the same question that they faced all those years ago. Our question, like theirs, might be, “Do I know this man well enough to trust his words and commit myself to the way of life he demands of his followers?”
At the start of Pope Francis’ first letter to the Church (The Joy of the Gospel), he wrote, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” (EG 3)
Perhaps this is the secret we so easily miss. Unless we actually come to know Jesus, unless we have ‘personally encountered’ him, then the demands of today’s Gospel have to be too great for us.
After all, he did say: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
There are not too many ways to interpret these words. There is no escaping their implications. Either I go and be reconciled to my brother or sister before coming to Church… or I don’t! And Jesus says, “… you must! This is what following me means.”
“You have heard it said, do not kill.” … but I say, … do not even be angry…!” This is what Jesus says… today… in this Gospel… to me. Either I can accept that, or I can’t. It is fairly unambiguous.
If I want to make excuses for myself, I might say, “… but they could see him in the flesh and actually hear the power of his words… we can’t!”
True… but we have the Resurrection, Pentecost and the millions of witnesses who have spoken to us over two thousand years… they didn’t!
Last week, Matthew told us that the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is not just a ‘theory’ or a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘ideal’. He told us that it is real, vibrant, and urgent. If we attempt to water it down, then we make it insipid and worthless, like salt which has lost its taste.
Today, in a very real way, we are on that hillside, listening to Jesus speak this Gospel to us. Those listening had to decide if they knew him well enough to trust his words. We too must decide if we know him well enough to trust his words. As Christians we do not follow a philosophy of life, or a set or moral and ethical guidelines. No! As Christians we follow a person – Jesus Christ.
The invitation he holds out to us to “come, follow me” is, I think, too much for us to accept unless we know and trust him. Being in Church, sharing our faith with a community of like-minded people is the start of coming to ‘know him’. Listening to the Gospels, allowing questions to arise for us, pondering what Jesus said and did, sharing with others the questions, and maybe doubts, we have, is the continuation of coming to ‘know him’. Taking a little time each day to pray, to talk to Jesus as a friend, to, as St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, “gaze at him in wonder” is the final step of coming ‘to know him’.
Finally, to take the words of today’s Gospel seriously, and to accept the very real implications of these words, will make us fearful and might even keep us awake at night. Any challenge we face, any difficult decision we have to make, will raise fears within us. The decision to trust the words of Jesus, to trust enough to allow them to change the way we live, is a big one and not one to take lightly.
For this reason, we must hear Jesus say to us, at every step of our journey, “Do not be afraid.” If Jesus challenges us to forgive those who hurt and betray us, he does so only because he first forgives us. Peter, his ‘rock’, his closest friend and confidant, on three separate occasions pretended he did not know him. When they next met, after the Resurrection Jesus’ only question was, “Peter, do you love me?” When Peter answered with a guilt-filled, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus asked no more. Peter was forgiven without the slightest hesitation or reservation or recrimination. His “Yes Lord, you know I love you” was enough. This is how Jesus forgives and it is how God forgives. All we need say is, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you” – and mean it – and we are forgiven.
And don’t just take my word for it. Pope Francis, again in that incredible document, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, says it much more eloquently than any words of mine could ever do.
“God forgives…” Pope Francis writes, “… not with a decree, but with a caress, caressing our wounds of sin.”
In another place he says, “With a tenderness which never disappoints… he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew.” (EG 3)
This is why we need never be afraid. This is why we can trust his words. This is why we can accept the challenges of today’s Gospel, not with fear, but with excitement. And we can sleep easy, knowing that we are not hiding our lamp under a tub, but putting in on a stand where the light of Jesus’ message will be seen by all who meet us.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors; but I say this to you
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