This Sunday’s Gospel is a tough one isn’t it? (Matt 5:17-37) We prefer to think of Jesus as someone who brings us love and forgiveness ; and, of course he does. For he is the man who forgives the woman caught committing adultery, and he is the man who said “Father forgive them” as cruel men hung him on the cross. So how come he’s so hard on such things today? Here is the man of forgiveness telling us that our impure thoughts are the same as adultery, and our angry thoughts are the same as murder. What are we to make of all this?
The clue lies in the people he is talking about ; the scribes and the Pharisees. These people believed that they kept every bit of the Jewish Law correctly. They divided the world neatly into good people like them, and bad people like everyone else. I sometimes meet people like this, but rarely in Church, thank goodness. I met one in the Pub recently. “Hello Father” she said, “You know that I don’t come to Church” (Slight pause here as she waited for my reaction!) “But I do lead a good life.” I restrained myself from screaming, and said fairly quietly I hope “Mmm. Jesus preferred people who admitted they were bad. He was always worried by people who thought they were good.”
The Church is often accused by people of being too strict, especially on things to do with sex of course! But the Church has to be like Jesus. We have to both proclaim the same high standards that he does in this passage, and also to share with others the love and forgiveness that comes from putting our trust in him. Jesus surely wants to stretch our understanding of what it means to be fully human; and the Church must do the same. As St Paul says in our 2nd reading (1 Cor 2:6-10) “We teach.. the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man.”
Actually Jesus spends a lot more time in this passage on the most common sin of all, not sex but anger. Now there is something we’re all guilty of. Not just any anger, for there is a righteous anger against injustice in the world that Jesus himself sometimes shows (and that we have seen in the people of Egypt recently) No, the anger Jesus is talking about is what we often call “irritation” or even “gossip”, to make it seem less bad! Thoughts in our mind or shared with others about someone, at work or at home, who has annoyed or upset us, or that snappy remark we make at someone because they have annoyed us. Jesus goes for things like this precisely because he knows that we all do them. Impure thoughts may pass as we get older, but getting irritated with others, I assure you (even if we say nothing and appear kind and loving), never seems to go away.
The Church, of course, is always accused by the world outside of going on about sexual sins, simply because in our modern society people don’t want to hear about this. Actually the Pope rarely speaks on such things, and nor do most priests or bishops. No, when we do speak about sin, it’s much more likely to point out our need to be kind, loving and forgiving to one another, and to recognize that war starts with each one of us. If we do talk about sex, we’re more likely to talk about the call to love and faithfulness in married life, than to things that fall below this.
But the Church does have a problem here. Many of you tell me of priests you know, or have known, who go on about morality, and that’s certainly the impression the world has of the Catholic Church. They see us as the spoilsports of all the fun things they want to do. The problem is twofold. First, if the Church just talks about love and forgiveness, people can get the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do. So we have to talk about the high standards of life that God requires if we are to get the balance right. Often people outside the Church then do not realize that when dealing with individual people, who’ve failed in one way or another, most priests spend their time comforting and forgiving people, rarely on telling them off!
The second problem is that people misunderstand the word sin, and certainly don’t want to think of themselves as sinners, presumably because they do not know the love and forgiveness of God! For Catholics, sin is anything that falls below the perfection that God is calling us to, and most of these things are what the world prefers to call mistakes, or think they are just being human! Catholics call these venial sins, the things we all commit, reserving the term mortal sins for the very bad things like murder, theft and adultery. But we also make a distinction between the sin itself and how much a person can be blamed for it – what we call “culpability”. A person who has an abortion in desperation, for example, not fully aware of what they are doing, may not be culpable – so their particular sin is not counted as mortal – even though abortion is still a mortal sin. In this way the Church both proclaims the high standards that we heard in our Gospel today and shares with each individual sinner, and that’s all of us, the love and forgiveness of God. Without the knowledge that the world’s evil is our responsibility, that each of us is guilty, there is, as the woman in the pub implied, no need for God.