Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Two Transformations - Homily for the 6th Sunday in OT (A)

Ok. Can we take a moment and pray about what we have just heard? I mean, I know that for many of us, Jesus’ words hit us right in the heart—and some of those words may have been hard to listen to or understand. And I think we just need to take a moment and pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us here…

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In my life, I have come to realize that God is not simply in the business of getting people to “fall into line.” God is firstly in the business of transforming us. Let us never forget this: God is in the business of transforming us.

And I’ve found that there are two major kinds of transformation.

The first transformation that God wants for us is that transformation from being adrift in the world to being chosen— from being pagan to being religious—from being just like everyone else in the world to being His. This is why God gave the Commandments: He gave these to choose and to transform a people that would be His own. “This people,” He says through the Commandments, “This people will not be stealing and killing like the others out there. This people will not be marrying many wives or worshipping many gods like the pagans. This people will be different.” That’s what the Commandments do. This is the first transformation.

And I liken it to a kind of fence. I know many of you have seen the movie The Sandlot. It’s a story about kids that play baseball in this field—the sandlot—and there is an old wooden fence that separates this lot from the house next door—a house that has a mean dog called The Beast (very apropos!). So there is the Sandlot on one side of the fence and on the other side of the fence there’s the beast. The fence separates the play and fun and children from what is dangerous and menacing. In much the same way, the Law of God acted as the fence separating and thus initially transforming an otherwise ordinary people into the People of God.

Hence, Jesus upholds commandments like “you shall not kill” and “you shall not commit adultery.” Because that fence is still needed! Cultures—even historically Christian cultures like our own—forget these very basic truths. This is why Jesus doubles down saying, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

So, keeping the law is important. That’s the first part of this Sermon on the Mountain.

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The second part reveals the second transformation: where our “righteousness [must surpass]… that of the Pharisees.” This second transformation is about being not simply a follower but a lover—specifically, a lover who loves as Christ loves.

What this means is that Jesus doesn’t simply want us to “not kill,” but He wants to have our hearts transformed in such a way that we avoid the beginnings of that—that anger and resentment and disdain for others. The new transformation—that of charity—is so important that Jesus says that “If you… recall [at the altar] that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there… and be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, in this second transformation we see that we cannot approach the God of love at the altar when we refuse to love another. This why Catholics have the Sign of Peace. At the Sign of Peace, we are really supposed to reconcile with others such that, if there is someone that we are at odds with, we must first be reconciled with them before we can receive communion. Reconciliation before Communion. That’s how much God wants this transformation for us.

Notice, then, the next lesson in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Notice the need for transformation: Jesus doesn’t simply want us to “not commit adultery”—that is important—but He even wants our eyes and hearts transformed in such a way that when we see a beautiful person, we don’t lust over that person as though they were an object—because treating a person as an object is not love. Fifty Shades of Gray is not love. Pornography is not love.

And notice how much Jesus wants this second transformation for us: “If your eye causes you to sin… if your hand causes you to sin…” He says, get rid of it! It’s hyperbole, of course, but it is to prove a point: the transformation to charity is so important that it is worth losing even your limbs over.

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Now comes the sensitive part of Jesus’ Sermon. He says: "[In the past] It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What is going on here? Ironically, the Pharisees were allowing divorce because, as Jesus points out, “the hardness of their hearts.” I say this is ironic because our culture, when it sees a person upholding laws, the culture calls that person a Pharisee. So, for example, I’ve seen article after article calling Cardinal Burke a Pharisee for upholding the law of marriage. But such articles forget that Pharisees didn’t uphold marriage at all! This is the oddity of the Pharisees: they uphold certain laws, but not the divine ones—and even less do they live them out (as Jesus points out later). The Pharisees allowed divorce for pretty much whatever reason.

To call Cardinal Burke a Pharisee is therefore really rather ignorant. Our world is like the Pharisees. Many Christian ministers, for example, have become like our secular (read: oftentimes pagan) courts and allow divorce for whatever reason (Pharisaical), not remembering that “what God has joined, men must not divide.” They even go so far as to marry previously divorced people.

The papers write about how the Catholic Church is “opposed to divorce.” The reality is, we simply don’t have the power to undo what God has joined.

Clearly, we are dealing with the first transformation here: from the pagan to the People of God.

The question may be asked: then what about annulments? Obviously, this is a question that requires more than a homily to answer, but the principle for them is found in the Gospel when Jesus notes “unless the marriage is unlawful”—implied: an unlawful marriage is not joined by God; it is null. (Hence “annulment”).

When Jesus talks about a marriage being unlawful, it is understood that He is speaking about those who are going through the first transformation: that is, about pagans who have entered the Jewish faith but have three, four, or possibly even more wives. Anything beyond the first is unlawful. That’s what Jesus is talking about. Or when someone was forced to marry—that’s unlawful. The Catholic Church simply applies the principle Jesus gave. So, if someone enters into marriage with no intention of being faithful—then, yes, that could be a problem. But that’s different than someone “falling” out of love. The marriage is lawful—meaning, God has joined it—and man cannot divide that. Here, the second transformation is imperative: “love one another as I have loved you.”

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Here we arrive, then, at the primo problem of our culture. The problem is not only that our culture does not embrace the first transformation (law), but precisely because it no longer embraces law, it no longer understands love. Love, in our culture, is erroneously reconciled with killing an infant or an elderly person. But that’s not love!—we cannot both love and kill a person. Love, in our culture, is erroneously reconciled with disregarding the Sabbath (“I don’t need religion to love God”); and so on. The “love” that our culture passes off is a contradictory house built on sand.

This is why our Lord has come. This is why our culture needs a Cardinal Burke out there. For both law and love are united in Jesus. This Jesus who comes to transform us in both. Hence: “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill” and “unless your righteousness exceeds that the of the Pharisees”—in sum “love one another as I have loved you” and “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”

So, we who struggle with sins against the law and against charity—it is for us that the Lord has come: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He wants to transform us. That’s His business. That’s His saving grace. And He is making that offer to you today.

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