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February 21, 2017

At the root of the matter

Christian discipleship encompasses a lot more than external ritualism! To be worth it, our piety must pierce the heart and infuse the entirety of one’s being. Thus, we are challenged to go beyond the outward observances of the Law onto a deep-rooted healing of the human heart, as a remedy for sin. The people of Jesus’ time viewed the Mosaic Law as the ultimate expression of the will of God, the self-revelation of God, and the complete code of conduct for the regulation of civil and religious matters. Yet, the greater emphasis was on the external dos and don’ts rather than on the inner renovation of the human heart, which conduces to harmony and personal integrity.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to complete the Law. So, what was incomplete about it? The Torah was designed to launch Israel as a nation-state in the land of Canaan. The manner of its application was oriented towards a visible code of righteousness to distinguish the chosen people of God from their pagan neighbours. Hence, Jesus comes to fulfil the Law by introducing an eschatological dimension to it – linking it to the end of history and the final judgment. Accordingly, beyond the regulation of civil life, the Law becomes a guide for personal inward holiness and a vehicle to eternity in the kingdom of God. Jesus transforms the Law from its secular interpretation by the scribes and the Pharisees into a mystical facility for heavenly aspirations.

Let us recall that just before his death, Moses said to the people: “Keep all the commandments which I command you today…that you may enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 27:1, 3). So, it was all about an earthly inheritance. But, as time went on, the people began to look forward to the day when the Law would be written in their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). Jesus fulfils that expectation by introducing a spiritual dimension of righteousness, which not only extends beyond the frontiers of Israel to cover the entire universe, but also goes beyond the superficial to penetrate the human heart, bringing about a radical transformation of human conduct through a life of conversion and holiness.

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Jesus elevates the discourse by linking the Law to the heavenly kingdom: Anyone who keeps it and helps others to do same will achieve greatness in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19). Our Lord directs our attention away from the external legalistic observance of minute details towards compassion; and away from excessive prohibitions towards positive commitment. Our Lord goes beyond the visible signs of sin (murder, adultery, lying, etc.) to reveal its root causes in the human heart – anger, lust, and a lack of personal integrity. Consequently, to avoid murder we need to watch the bitterness in our hearts. To avoid adultery, one needs to check the deliberately entertained lustful thoughts, such as promoted by the media and the porn industry. We need a healthy attitude of respect for the dignity of all persons – men, women and children. Also, the solution to false swearing is the inner integrity and strength of character to say either “yes” or “no”.

Today, therefore, we are to reflect on the destructive impact of sinful anger, lust, and lying. If God is the Father of all, how can we have real fellowship with him when we still harbour resentment or contempt towards some people, or tarnish their good name by spreading rumours about them, or speaking ill of them? How can we live in intimacy with a God who loves everyone as a father loves his children when, in our hearts, we desire to use some of them as objects of pleasure and self-indulgence? How can anyone be a true friend of God, when he/she makes promises that they don’t intend to keep? Jesus looks into the heart, not just at appearances; he knows our deepest motivations and desires. But do we ourselves really know them? We need to look inside!

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The danger in focussing too much on the external without looking inside is that, often, it makes us hypocrites. We make appear nice on the outside but what goes on in the inside is a different matter. That was the issue with the obsession of the Jewish leaders of the Lord’s time with external rituals; and it’s not hard to see why Jesus often called them “hypocrites”. Our task, therefore, is to take our virtue deeper than that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We need to go beyond the visible down to the roots of sin in our hearts. Our outward behaviour must conform to God’s will, as appearances are not enough. For a true and faithful citizenship of Christ’s Kingdom, the attitudes and desires of our hearts must be in harmony with God’s will. That way the Law is fulfilled in our life!

So, my dear friends, how well are we conformed to Christ? What about our thoughts and the quality of our conversations? When we speak, are we usually building others up, or tearing them down? Do we engage in crude and degrading humour? Do we join in gossip sessions and spread unnecessary criticisms or even deliberate falsehood just to score cheap points? Do we use our words to encourage, enlighten, and edify others, or are we constantly nagging, slandering, and belittling them? The more in-tune our hearts are with God and the experience of his love, the more our words will reflect his goodness, mercy, and wisdom.

Therefore, let us ask Jesus for help to see the true state of our hearts. Let us ask him to take our sinful hearts in exchange for his own Sacred Heart. He has already given us everything else and will not hold back his heart from us if we ask. The heart of Jesus in us places us on solid ground to possess that hidden wisdom that St Paul talks about in the Second Reading. That hidden wisdom is eternal life in the kingdom of God. That is where we will behold: “the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

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