Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Moral Life and Eternal Life

St. Augustine (354-430)- Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne

(Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time; This homily was given on 13 February, 2011 at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; See Sirach 15:15-20 and Matthew 5:17-37)

Our readings for this weekend from the Book of Sirach and the Gospel of St. Matthew teach us about the moral life and eternal life. Those two realities, for the follower of Jesus Christ, are inherently connected. To live the moral life, to follow the commandments of God and the teachings of our faith as revealed by God through His Church in the Scriptures and Sacred Tradition, is to begin to experience already a foretaste of eternal life with God. The life of grace within the soul, the Holy Spirit dwelling within us from our Baptism, takes root and begins to thrive and flourish when we follow the commandments of God.

In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus Christ says “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). God desires for us to experience here already that abundant life which is a foretaste of the joy, peace and holiness that will one day be ours for all eternity.

But the opposite is also true…If we choose not to follow the commandments of God and the teachings of our faith, if we decide that we will take our own path and follow our own will when we know that God is asking from us something else, we risk losing that abundant life He wants for us. There are Capital or “root sins”—in the Gospel this morning Christ mentions two of them, anger and lust—which are indicative of the decisions we can make in the moral life which often stifle the very life of God within the soul.

Anger, lust, pride, envy, sloth, avarice, gluttony...allowing these sins to take root in the soul, we risk losing not only the abundant life that Christ offers but even eternal life itself.

Sadly, too many people live as if that is not a remote possibility, as if God could never possibly say to them, at the final judgment: “I do not know where you come from; depart from me all you workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:27). Choosing not to follow the commandments of God creates in our lives the very real possibility of the loss of eternal life; Christ, in the Gospel this morning refers to that loss as Gehenna or hell. For all these reasons Sirach this morning cautions us to choose wisely when it comes to the commandments of God. He says:

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you.
—Sirach 15:15

Heaven is not something that happens to us by accident. We do not enter eternal life as a mere conclusion to life here on earth. No, heaven is embraced through the choices and moral decisions we make each day. We decide to follow God, through a multitude of circumstances and sometimes in the midst of great difficulty. But the fact of the matter is we make decisions. Sirach this morning says to us:

He has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.
—Sirach 15: 16-17

The commandments of God are the path to eternal life. That is why Christ is so adamant about the importance of the commandments in our Gospel this morning. He says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
—Matthew 5:17

With tremendous authority Christ makes it clear that He is not simply a new Moses, not some great prophet or teacher of the law who will guide them into deeper interpretations of the commandments. No, He is the God who gives the law, and the only one who has ever completely fulfilled it. With that very same authority and power, compassion and mercy, Christ goes on to issue a challenge that should make us all a bit uncomfortable. It comes to us in the simple phrase:

You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…

Speaking about anger and lust, those root sins that have the power to destroy the life of grace in the soul, Christ explains how we do not have to commit the actual sin of murder; we do not have to be a notorious public sinner or have committed the act of adultery in order to be at risk of losing eternal life. Christ levels the playing field in the moral life and attacks the shallow religiosity of the scribes and Pharisees, a morality not at all unlike the one we find today.

It is not the case that there are notorious sinners—murderers and adulterers—who will not likely make it to heaven; that there are then the majority of us striving to be more righteous and good each day, working our way to heaven; that, finally, there are the scribes and Pharisees who are well on their way and the paragon of virtue. No, Christ turns that simplistic morality upside down when He says:

Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 5:20

Christ makes it clear to all of us that things are worse than they appear…and also so much better. Our late Holy Father, Blessed John Paul the Great, in a conference on the Theology of the Body back in 1980, says that this Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ words—You have heard that it was said…but I say to you—are not merely an accusation but above all an invitation: “The accusation leveled at the evil of lust is at the same time an appeal to overcome it” (General Audience of October 22, 1980).

Christ never raises the bar in the moral life beyond our ability to reach it; He would never command us to do something that is not possible. He gives us all the grace we need to be forgiven, loved, strengthened and confirmed in our journey through this life and on our way to eternal life with Him. But that can never happen until we are willing to admit that we desperately need God. We must come to the realization that, without grace, we cannot live the moral life as we should. We must declare, in a certain sense, spiritual bankruptcy and allow God to renew us and animate us from within.

In his letter to the Romans St. Paul describes his own struggle to live the moral life and to fulfill the commandments of God. He says:

For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do…when I want to do the right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
—Romans 7:19-25

This great mystery of the power of grace in the life of the soul takes on a whole new and compelling witness in the life of St. Augustine. Many people are familiar with the Confessions of St. Augustine, the autobiography that describes his conversion and God’s victory over sin in his life. In Book VI he reflects on the relationship he shared with the woman who was his mistress and who had given birth to his son. With total transparency and heartfelt honesty he says:

Meanwhile my sins were being multiplied, and my mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding. And she went back to Africa, making a vow unto You never to know another man, leaving with me my natural son by her. But I, unhappy one, who could not imitate a woman, impatient of delay, since it was not until two years' time I was to obtain her I sought—being not so much a lover of marriage as a slave to lust—procured another.
—Confessions Book VI, Ch. 15

Augustine had first to declare spiritual bankruptcy, to acknowledge his utter dependency and even enslavement to lust, before he could come to the realization that he needed God. It is one of the most provocative passages in the Confessions, and provides a stark example of how the root sin of lust—or any of the root sins, for that matter—has the power to keep the life of God from developing within the soul. It spells out for us the tragic consequences of a life given over to sin.

But, of course, we know the rest of the story. We know how God never gives up on Augustine, never ceases to call him to virtue and holiness, no matter how far he has fallen. Augustine goes on to describe that victory of God in his life:

Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were within, and I was in the external world and sought you there . . . You were with me, and I was not with you . . . You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness . . . You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
—Confessions Book X, Ch. 27

That is what can happen when we are open to the call of God deep within. Even in the midst of our struggles in the spiritual life, when we are all too cognizant of our weaknesses and our utter dependency upon God, we can take courage knowing that He is with us and constantly provides for us what we need to follow Him. Over and over again we have the ability and indeed the privilege of choosing to listen to the voice of God and to follow His call to mercy, forgiveness, renewal and new life. And so, we listen once again to the words of Sirach from our first reading this weekend:

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you.
—Sirach 15:15

God sets before us this day fire and water…life and death…good and evil.

Let us choose Christ. Let us choose life. Let us choose to embrace the abundant life that He offers to each one of us this day.