The Choice Is Always Ours

'Lost and Found' by Greg Olsen. Used with Permission.
“Lost and Found” by Greg Olsen. Used with Permission.

November 20, 2022

February 12, 2017

Listen to audio Hear Audio of this homily.

Matthew 5:17-37

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

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, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.

Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”

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.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’

But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Again, you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’

But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.

Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

As some of you may remember, I was raised on a farm in East Texas. And there was a whole lot that went on on that farm – lessons that were learned, experiences garnered, lessons that I never even really knew I was learning until later in life. My dad was this great person for setting down rules for us – laws that were meant to protect us.

Now I want everybody to take a nice big breath. I’m going to share a little bit of breaking news with you. I wasn’t very good at following those rules. I know it’s shocking. But see, I was one of those people who needed real world experiences instead of someone else’s experience related to me. Now if he told me not to stick something into a wall plug, it was exactly what I was going to do. He would tell me, “Don’t jump off of the roof.” I experienced the sweet freedom of flight – until the sudden painful stop at the bottom. If he told me to wait and let the light bulb cool off before changing it, I was going to be walking around with blistered fingers. The rules were there to protect us, but he couldn’t make us, could not force us to make good choices. He knew that his children, especially me, would need to make our share of bad choices to learn.

Now, looking back, I can’t help but think of what a great gift I was to my father. [laughter] I was the source of so much frustration. But I was also the source of so much entertainment.

On the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time that we celebrate today we hear this played out in scripture readings. My father’s role is represented by that of God, the lawgiver, the protector, the loving parent. My role is represented by the Jewish people, the law testers, the disobedient, petulant child.

Yeshua Ben Sirach, the author of Sirach, taught his students that ultimately, the choice is always ours. God can give us the rules to protect us, but He cannot make us choose wisely.

And then referring back, today, to the end of Exodus, he cites Deuteronomy. He says, “He has set before you fire and water. To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man, or life or death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” The choice is ours.

Now as the Jews were finally escaping the 40 years in the desert, they passed between two mountains, where the priests were stationed on either side, indicating two different paths, saying, “This path, to follow God in life. The other leads to death.” I admit to not being the smartest guy that you’re probably ever going to sit down and talk with. That doesn’t seem like that hard of a choice to me. The lesson I think to be learned here from Sirach’s writings is that God loves us so much that He gives us free will – the ability to choose Him or to reject Him. He then gives us the laws to help us to choose wisely, but ultimately, the choices are ours. Love Him, reject Him, this way to life, that way to death. The path we choose is ours.

In St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning, he references the writings of Sirach, most likely because St Paul’s own teacher, Gamaliel, was himself teaching from Sirach. Paul points out that the laws are from a very special wisdom, the wisdom of God, when he writes, “Not from a wisdom of this age, nor the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak of God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory. And which none of the rulers of this age knew.

then St John Chrysostom, in his homilies on the epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, writes, and I quote, “Paul is keen to point out that God always loved us, even from the very beginning, when we did not yet exist. Look beyond the broken relationship which has come in between, and you will see that God’s love for us is more ancient still.”

So, we look beyond the broken relationship that we broke, to the chafing at the restrictions of living by the rules, God’s laws. Humanity cries out against the perceived oppression of God’s laws, crying out for change. The world beckons to us to choose the wrong path, away from God. And many of our religious leaders today, sadly, have caved to the many and make sweeping changes in their teachings to garner more people in the pews. We don’t need to change the teachings. We need to change the delivery. Easy isn’t the answer.

Of course, our own Catholic faith is constantly under attach to change, get more in line with the times. Now I know the temptation has to be there as we watch more and more of the faithful drift away from the, once again, perceived burden of the responsibilities of following the law. But we need to be very careful when we wish for change because we may well get it, like the people of Jesus’ time. As Jesus continues the revolutionary Sermon on the Mount.

Just before where we pick up the Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus saying to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law, or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until Heaven and Earth pass away, not the smallest letter, or the smallest part of the letter of the Law will pass away.” He said we had to be more righteous, more holy than those who follow the Law, such as the Scribes and the Pharisees.

And, so, Jesus says, “Your ancestors were told, ‘Do not commit adultery’. But I say, if you look at a woman [or a man] with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart.” He makes the Law even stricter. He then says, “Your ancestors were told, ‘Thou shalt not commit murder.’ But I say, if you are angry with someone, you’re liable to judgement.” I don’t know about you, but that’s a very, very scary thought for me, driving through Houston in the Houston traffic. “And again, you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘do not take a false oath but make good to the Lord all that you vow’. But I say to you, ‘do not swear at all. Let your ‘yes’ mean yes, your ‘no’ mean no. Anything more is from the evil one.’“ If we honor our word, we don’t need to swear because everyone knows if we say it, we will do it. But unfortunately, today we no longer honor our word as we should. Our marriages are no longer sacred as they once were. We break the covenant, and we break hearts, and we break lives.

But God loves us, no matter what choices we make. And so, there is a healing in the ministry of annulments where we can help to make lives whole once again. Helping those grieving over the death of a marriage to heal and to live once again.

“Let your “yes” mean yes, and your “no” mean no. Anything else is from the evil one.” Parsing our words, vague language that we can always say is not what we meant, not telling the complete truth or being honest about your intentions are things that the evil one does.

He has set before you fire and water, and whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. The choice is ours. Good or evil, right or wrong, – we have the Law to guide us. Ultimately, the choice is ours. And honestly, we don’t have to stick something in a wall plug, to know that’s a very bad choice.

At least that’s what I heard Him say…

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