Sunday, February 16, 2014

God and Human Freedom: The Heart of the Matter

(6th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 15 and 16 February, 2014 at Holy Apostles Church, in Cranston, R.I. and 16 February, 2014 at St. Luke’s Church in Barrington, R.I.; See Book of Sirach 15:15-20, Romans 7:19-25 and Matthew 5:17-37)

The Scriptures for this weekend allow us to reflect more deeply on one of the most awesome, beautiful and powerful gifts we possess as human beings: the gift of freedom.   The saints and theologians teach us that freedom is one of the qualities that make us most like God.  The animals act by instinct, but we live by the decisions that we make, using our God-given freedom in creative choices that imitate God Himself.

It is freedom that makes the possibility of love so terrifying.  I could choose to offer myself in friendship and love to another person who is under no obligation whatsoever to receive or return that love.  Truth be told, many people never reach out to those around them simply because it is such a risk, because it leaves them so vulnerable…But isn’t that also what makes friendship and love so exhilarating, so fulfilling?   When our gift of love is freely received and freely returned, or when we choose to accept the friendship of another person and return it, it bears fruit in joy and new life.  Freedom is that powerful.

More than love, however, our freedom and the decisions that we make in many ways define us.   When we choose the good and make decisions based on God’s loving plan for our lives then we become more and more the men and women God always created us to be.  We become even more free and begin to experience the joy and peace that are the natural fruits of freedom exercised well. 

But the opposite is also true: the more we choose to live contrary to the way God created us, when we choose sin and reject the love that God has offered us, our lives often become more constricted.  Many times we can become imprisoned in our own failures and in the regret that follows from an abuse of freedom that had originally promised much but in the end delivered very little.

This is the mystery of freedom that the Old Testament sage, Ben Sirach, is introducing to us this weekend.  He says:

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; 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 15:15-17

How astonishing, the power that is on display here!  What becomes clear in Sirach’s description, however, is that the power is not found in the fire or in the water.  It is not found in life or in death; the power is not in what is good or in what is evil.  The power revealed here is found in us.   The power to choose good or evil is in us; the power to enter life or inherit death rests deep within the human heart.

In our Gospel for this weekend, Jesus Christ is calling our attention to the commandments, for sure, and also to the consequences of choosing good or evil.  But what He is most adamant about in this 5th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel is the situation of the heart.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

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.

—Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28

Like Sirach before Him, Jesus Christ teaches us clearly that murder and adultery are not things outside of the person, as if they possessed some kind of mystical power to ruin us.  No, murder and adultery begin deep within the human heart.  It is the heart that is sick from original sin, and the choices and decisions for sin that follow us all throughout our lives.  The anger, lust, selfishness, pride, envy; these are the things that corrupt the heart and turn us away from God, from each other and from the eternal life that God desperately longs to give us.  

The heart is broken.   If we are to make any choices at all for love, for life and for God, then it is the heart—above all else—that needs to be healed.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, mediates on this very mystery and the agonizing struggle to choose what is right and true:

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

That is St. Paul’s answer, his solution, his saving grace: Jesus Christ!  “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

We are healed and our hearts are restored by freedom.  We are set free by a decision, a choice...  But not yours, and not mine.  We are healed and made whole by the freedom and the decision of God to send His only begotten Son to save us.  We are chosen by God, even when He knew the world would not accept Him, and even when He understood that His offer of love would be rejected and His body would be nailed to the cross.  He chose to love us anyway, and to offer us the forgiveness and mercy that we so desperately need and the healing that we long for deep within our hearts.

Receiving that love, that mercy, is the one choice above all other choices that begins to transform our souls and sets us free to live our lives entirely for God.  Choosing the mercy of God we begin to grow in the grace and favor of a love that never leaves us, and a God who lives within us, teaching us to make the decisions and choices that will lead to true life and eternal bliss. 

But we must make the conscious and persistent choice to accept and embrace that mercy; we must be willing to admit that we need it.

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen would often say that sin is not the worst thing in the world.  The worst thing in the world is the denial of sin.  He once received a phone call from a woman whose brother was dying in the hospital.  She described her brother not simply as a bad man, but as an evil man.  He was a very rough character.  Over 20 priests had been in to see him on his deathbed, and he had thrown them all out!  As a last resort, his sister asked Fulton Sheen for help.

Realizing that he would fare no better than the other priests, Sheen stayed only 15 seconds on his first visit, and said nothing.  The next day he came back and stayed for 20 seconds.  Again he said nothing.  After 40 days he was finally staying for up to 15 minutes a visit, and it was then that he finally broke the silence:  “William,” he said, “you are going to die tonight.”

“I know,” was the man’s reply. 

“I am sure you want to make your peace with God,” Sheen said to him. 

“No, I do not.  Get out.”

Realizing that he wasn’t going to get through, Fulton Sheen agreed to leave, but before he did he went over to the man and said to him, “Just one thing.  Promise me that before you die tonight, you will say, ‘Jesus, have mercy’.”  He said, “I will not.  Now get out.”

Later that night, one of the nurses called Fulton Sheen to tell him that the man had died, and she said that he had died well.  “Why would you say that,” he asked.  She said, “Because from the moment you left the room, he began to say, ‘Jesus, have mercy,’ and didn’t stop until the moment he died.”

Jesus Christ invites us today to receive His mercy and forgiveness.  We do not have to wait until we are on our deathbed to recognize that it is time to be reconciled to God.  We do not need to commit the sin of murder or adultery to see that we are desperately in need of the mercy of Jesus Christ. 

Here in the Eucharist may we make that choice for Him that has the power to heal the brokenness and sorrow that a lifetime of poor decisions and bad choices have left in their wake.  Here, as Jesus Christ offers Himself to us, may we respond in our hearts, “Jesus, have mercy.”  And may we never cease to offer that prayer to Him until our earthly journey is complete.