1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Today’s scripture readings blow a massive hole in the heretical idea that our works have nothing at all to do with our justification before God. All three of these readings make one thing clear: God Almighty has moral laws, and we, the People of God, are expected to follow these laws. Indeed, the Psalm for this Mass, Psalm 119, puts it in a way that is crystal clear when it says “blessed are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who observe his decrees, who seek them with all of their heart.” Even St. Paul, for whom the unfathomable love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ was the theme and, some would argue, the very purpose of his apostolic call and ministry, says that he speaks a “wisdom not of this age,” but a wisdom which God “predetermined” before time began (when he refers to “we,” most traditional Catholic commentators believe that he speaks of himself and his apostolic authority, and he is asserting his own place among the apostles to speak with that kind of authority). Paul is basically asserting that the wisdom of God is unchanging, and Scripture certainly bears that out (cf. Malachi 3:6-8).
Jesus, for his own part, spends what for us is twenty verses of the Gospel not only telling us that he isn’t abolishing the law but fulfilling it, but he is explaining to us just what God’s moral law is really all about. Our Lord isn’t just talking about the Law of Moses, he is raising the bar. He is telling his listeners that God’s standards are higher than the standards of men, and that our example of how to live should be rooted in God’s standards, not the standards of this world or anyone in it. He is telling his Jewish or Hebraic audience in his own time that the Law of Moses they’ve heard about, recited, or studied…yes, that’s good, but there is far more to God Almighty and his Holy Law than merely what Moses laid down. Further, Jesus lets us know that those who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will be those who keep these laws. Jesus does not say that our works play no role at all in our salvific relationship with God. What he tells his disciples is the exact opposite when he says to them very bluntly “if you love me, keep my commandments.” (cf. John 14:15).
Let us first deal very directly with one word we hear in today’s Gospel and its meaning. Jesus says “It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.” In the terms of the time, Gehenna was the Hebrew name of a small valley just outside of Jerusalem that served (more or less) as the community garbage dump of ancient Jerusalem. It was where the refuse was usually thrown. Other translations used another word for it, a Greek word, which is translated Hell. This place became a garbage dump because at one point in their history, some of the Israelites who decided to turn their backs on God imitated the Cannanites who were their predecessors and had sacrificed little children to Molech in that place. This turned it into an unclean place that was used both as a refuse dump and a kind of potter’s acre where the bones of the dead were often dumped. In using this graphic illustration, Jesus is making it clear to his hearers what could happen to their souls for disobeying the commandments of God. Jesus’ disciples and others who heard him would have very well understood what that meant.
Nowhere is the importance of keeping the Divine law more clearly illustrated than in Jesus’ very clear words and teaching on the matters of adultery, divorce and remarriage. The covenant law of Exodus and Deuteronomy is very clear: Don’t have sexual relations, or what was deemed the “marital act,” outside of the matrimonial covenant between man and woman. If you do, you’ve violated God’s law, and the Old Testament penalty was death, especially if you were caught in the act. The reason wasn’t because the Israelites were unforgiving people, or because God’s nature somehow changed and he became more merciful and loving in the New Testament and somehow didn’t love people the same in the days of the Old, but because death was the only way the Israelites knew to guarantee a separation of the people who did such things from the holy assembly, or the ecclesia, of Israel.
Because of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for all of us, we are promised forgiveness of our sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation if we are truly sorry for them, and his Mercy is truly limitless (as St. Faustina, in her Diary, reminds us). We don’t have to die physically to atone for our own sins or transgressions against God’s law, Jesus made sure of that, and we proclaim that reality anew each time we receive the Eucharist. As St. John the Beloved tells us, when we do sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. (cf. 1 John 2:1-3) However, Jesus also lets us know in today’s Gospel that God’s standards are much higher than mere cursory compliance with the Law as given to Moses. Rather than merely saying “marital relations outside of the marriage bond are a sin,” Jesus said that merely looking on someone with lust is the same as committing adultery with them. Jesus is making it clear that we are putting our souls in danger in those kinds of circumstances.
In today’s society, there is perhaps no more difficult passage of Sacred Scripture for people to reconcile in our daily lives than what Jesus says in the Gospel today about divorce and remarriage. Divorce is all-too-common in our culture today, the overall divorce rate in the United States is over 50%. We can be thankful that the Catholic divorce rate is lower-most reputable surveys have the Catholic divorce rate at about 28%-but it is still far too high. We know it is too high because the last time any reasonably good statistics were taken on declarations of nullity, that is declarations by the appropriate ecclesiatical authorities that certain marriages are not lawful in the eyes of the Church, and are therefore not sacramentally binding-the United States had the highest rate of declarations of nullity in the world. There are some Catholic commentators who believe that this is because American marriage tribunals are too lenient, but I do not believe that is the case, instead I believe that there are too many of our young married couples are entering into marriage without a complete understanding of what the sacrament of matrimony is, and what sacramental marriage is really all about.
Most of us will recall several years ago when the severity of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Church first became apparent. So many of us were scandalized by the magnitude of that scandal not merely because so many innocent children were so horribly abused and scarred for life, but because many people understood that the perpetrators of this abuse had broken the promises and vows they made as members of the clergy in the most heinous way (clergy make the public promise of obedience to the bishop, but we also sign in a bit more private setting a much more detailed and very serious oath of fidelity to the Church and to the Magesterium). We understood that the clergy who had done this had betrayed the Church, betrayed their offices, and betrayed the Lord who redeemed them, and they certainly by their actions they broke their oaths of fidelity.
But the vows of Matrimony are every bit as serious as those promises of fidelity to the Church and the Truth made by our clergy, and those of us who are married are every bit as responsible for our marriage vows before God as is the priest or deacon who has promised fidelity to the Church-it is a lifetime sacramental covenant commitment, and it is one we should never enter into if we do not intend what the Church intends, and we do not mean to keep those vows.
If God’s laws are so important, and we are accountable to God for them, we already know we are imperfect people who sin, what are we to do? We might make a fresh start with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus is eager to forgive us, all we have to do is ask in a spirit of sorrow and contrition for our sins. The Blessed Mother was immaculately conceived, but we are not. If we are not living God’s law but we want to get our relationship with God right, the Confessional is a wonderful place for that new beginning in our lives to start.