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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Holiness Arises in the Heart!

Sermon by Fr. Joseph Mungai
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 11, 2017
St Mary of the Pines Catholic Church, Shreveport, LA, U.S.A.
Fr. Joe is on leave from his parish in Kenya, St. John the Apostle Awasi Catholic Church, Kisumu Archdiocese.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

You all know people with a decent reputation. They are respectful of others and law abiding. We also know some who with a good reputation turn out to be different than we
thought. Some bring terrible hurt and inflict real damage. As the old saying goes, appearances are deceiving. Looking good does not mean that our hearts are filled with goodness.

The first reading today (Sirach 15:15-20) tells us this:
“If you trust in God, you too shall live.” The gift of wisdom comes from God and that wisdom is practical knowledge of how to live
well in all relationships, learned from generations of experience and reflection on life with God and one another.

In the second reading, (
1 Cor 2:6-10), Saint Paul tells us: “We speak a wisdom to those who are mature.” Because our wisdom originates --not from human reason  -- but from the eternal, hidden plan of God, rulers of the present age cannot know it. It can only be grasped through divine disclosure. God's character and plan are revealed in Christ's passage through the humiliation and agony of the Cross to the Resurrection. 

This wisdom is the spiritual eye that can see the effects of God's love and saving power working in us through Christ's redemption. We are called to use it. A blind man slowly turned around the corner of a street feeling his way
with his white cane. A young man coming from the opposite direction collided with him. "Why don't you look where you are going?" barked the hurried young man. The blind man gently replied, "Why don't you go where you are looking?" Many times we fail to use the  eye of Wisdom God has given to us.

In our Gospel (
Mt 5:17-37), today, Jesus wants us to use that "spiritual eye." He wants us to see the world through His glasses. He reminds us that it is not external behavior that determines everything, but what is more important is what is happening in our hearts.

Matthew's Gospel was written primarily for Christians who were grounded in the scripture and traditions of the ancient Hebrews--or simply Christians who had first been Jews. The gospel also focused on Jews who were considering becoming Christians as well as all who wanted to learn more about this New Way as our faith was first called.
Matthew's Gospel has numerous references to the Torah, the most important part of the Hebrew Scripture. The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Matthew, there are five main talks or discourses of the Lord modeled on the five books of the Law or the Torah. The first main discourse of the Law is the most important--the Sermon on the Mount, part of which is in today's gospel reading. Just as Moses went up Mount Sinai to bring the Ten Commandments, God's Law to the people, Jesus climbs the mountain of the Beatitudes to present the New Law to the people.

With this in mind, we can understand Jesus's opening remarks in today's gospel: "I came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them." In the Lord's eyes, the Hebrew Scripture is not only valid, but it holds a place of greater reverence than ever before. But merely fulfilling the precepts of the ancient law was not enough. The attitudes and lifestyles of the Christian must reflect living the law.

When he introduced the New Law of the Kingdom of God Jesus said something that was absolutely shocking. He said that the holiness of the people had to surpass that of
the scribes and the Pharisees. How could anyone be holier than the Pharisees? The pharisees were referred as
"Perushim" [separated ones]. They strictly observed the Torah and hence they refused to mix with those who didn't observe torah vigorously.  

The Pharisees dressed wearing numerous images of their religion--including phylacteries, or miniature lists of the ten commandments. These hung from their headbands so whenever they turned their
Phylactery on his forehead, miniature 10 Commandments
head they would fulfill the law: keep these commandments always before your eyes.

They fasted. They said loud prayers for all to hear. But Jesus said that his followers had to be holier than these Pharisees. How could that be possible? Well, Jesus explains, our external actions must be a reflection of what we are really like in our hearts. If what we do is not a reflection of who we are, then we are hypocrites. Hypocrite, that’s the word that Jesus uses over and over to describe the Pharisees. 

To demonstrate his point, Jesus contrasts the written law of the Torah with the new attitude of the Kingdom that must motivate this law. For example Jesus says, "You have heard it said that murder is wrong, but harboring hatred is also wrong even if you don't physically kill someone."  Why? Because murder is conceived by hatred. The person who hates but does not murder is not a good person. He is just a person who has followed the social norms perhaps to avoid punishment. It is the same with all the laws and rules of the New Kingdom. The Lord's point is that following the law demands living the lifestyle that gives rise to the law. Living the life of the Lord
motivates the Christian rather than the minimal performance of the law.

It is important that we convey this message to our children. I know how adamant you all are to provide the best for your children. I and all your priests are edified by your efforts to be the best parents you can be. I want to re-enforce those efforts that I know you are making to have your children understand the motivation for their actions. Consider asking the children "why" a particular action is good or bad. For example, "I saw you playing with your cousin today and sharing your toys with him or her. That was very good. Do you know why?" Hopefully, your child will answer, "Because people are more important than our stuff." 

Maybe we need to do the same thing for ourselves. For example, "I am here in Church. This is good. Why?"  This is because I belong to God and He belongs to me. I need this intimate union with Him in the reading of Scripture and partaking of the Eucharist at least once a week. Or, "I really lost it with my spouse or my kids. This is bad. Why?"  It's not just because anger is bad, but I sinned against the love that animates our family, the Love of God."

You see, it is not in the action itself but it is in the motivation behind the action where the person's true identity is found and formed. We are called to take upon ourselves the very identity of Jesus Christ. We are called to be selfless givers. We are called to be eternal lovers of the Father. We are called to rejoice in His presence in our families. We are not called to be minimalists in the faith. We are called to develop the facility of finding meaning in the laws that God gave us so that our external actions might truly be a reflection of our internal attitudes.

So, is it easier to be a modern Christian than an ancient Jew? Absolutely not. Christianity is extremely demanding upon us all because it calls us to be 100% committed to living in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.When we make efforts to be wholesome and sincere, then our holiness will surpass even that of the scribes and Pharisees.
God gave us the tremendous gift of freely choosing. Love isn’t truly love unless it is freely given – and freely received.  God has paid us a tremendous compliment in that He respects our decisions. He offers and then He waits for our response. His love for us is unconditional. His only law is love, a love within us that governs our choices and the actions that flow from our choices.
Matthew’s Gospel repeats the same lesson: doing good actions that look good in the eyes
of the world and yet do not contain our complete commitment to Him is not enough:
“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’” We cannot fool God. God wants us to give ourselves completely to Him. He will give Himself to us beyond all that we can imagine!

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