The wisdom of Sirach places a radical choice before us. It is a choice between life and death, and our chosen option will be given to us. God, mighty in power and penetrating in vision, knows our hearts and our minds. Our desires and our thoughts, however, deviate from God’s will.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he is well aware that their sophistication is no match for “the deep things of God.” He urges, rather, the wisdom of the spiritually mature. But it is surely not the wisdom of this age, “nor of the rulers of this age.” Such so-called wisdom can only lead to destruction. To Paul, the revelation of Jesus represents a vision that human eyes have never seen, a voice that human ears have never heard. It is beyond our wildest imaginings, “Nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Indeed, it is hard to imagine any merely human prudence or wisdom conjuring up the radical propositions of the Sermon on the Mount. While Jesus does not intend to abolish the Old Law, he promises to fulfill or realize the law in a new way. And it is new, utterly at odds with the secular and religious rulers of his time. “I tell you, unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” Murder had already been forbidden in the Ten Commandments, but Jesus plumbs to the heart of murderous intent. It is unspoken anger, violent language, quiet contempt of the other. It is an unwillingness to forgive. “If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
How different would our own Eucharists be if we took Jesus seriously? The resentments we hold against our parents, our children, our spouses, and our neighbors would have to dissolve before we would approach the altar, lest we receive the sacrament unworthily. Perhaps that is why our Communion is aptly prefaced by the sign of peace. Just as we ask God, “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church,” so also we who have sinned against each other must see with the eyes of faith and forgive.
Adultery was forbidden of old. But Jesus speaks to the lust that underlies the adultery. (Remember how Jimmy Carter was ridiculed when he admitted to lust in his heart? He was just admitting what we all know but are ashamed to acknowledge.)
Jesus unmasks the injustice (especially against women) and the adultery that so often accompany divorce. His words are strong, but no stronger than those addressed to us who refuse to forgive.
In matters of discipleship Jesus does not allow ifs, ands, or buts. “Say ‘Yes’ when you mean ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ when you mean ‘No.’ Anything beyond that is from the evil one.”
It can be dangerous, mind-altering, to read the Sermon on the Mount. It will shake the ways we think about punishment, penalty, justice, and love itself. Most of all it thwarts our attempts to compromise our faith or set aside privileged parts of our lives that we shield from the law of God.
What can we make of all this? The Lord’s teachings seem futile. Our meager hearts feel diminished by his standards. Who of us has not broken promises, or harbored resentment, or acted lustfully, or sworn vengeance, or faked our way through the day?
In one of his earliest retreat talks, the late Anthony DeMello, SJ, said as much. We all fall short. And therefore we all must not judge. We all are called to holiness, and therefore we must not exempt ourselves.
The Sermon on the Mount is not there to cast us down into helpless and hopeless guilt. No, it is an invitation to that high holiness that we have hitherto not seen or heard about. It is an excavation into our deepest loves, so that seeing what we love most, we will finally be given our heart’s desire. But it is a harrowing trip down into the mines of our motivation.
Journeying through the gospels is no easy trip. It’s a dangerous, plummeting, careening journey. Anyone who talks, writes, or preaches about the gospel in a way that leaves us unchallenged or bored just isn’t doing the work. Any teenager who leaves church without having witnessed the radicalness of the Mass and the revolutionary import of the gospel was either asleep or listening to a sleeping minister of the Eucharist.
We may think our faith is just another “amen” to the wisdom of our age. Well, if we think that, we just don’t know what our faith is about.