26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
In my moral theology class this week, we have been studying the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is programmatic not only for the operative theology in the Gospel of Matthew, but also for the Christian life. For example, in the Didache, a very early (late 1st to 2nd century) document on Christian morality, the Sermon on the Mount is at the fore. The first section begins with a choice between two ways, the way of life and the way of death, with the former characterized almost completely by the Sermon on the Mount:
The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would should not occur to you, do not also do to another. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there, if you love those who love you? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone gives you a blow upon your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one that asks you, and ask it not back . . .
Now, this is some tough stuff to chew on. I asked my students, “in what way is the description of the way of life characteristic of the Christian community today?” One student responded that this description wasn’t really characteristic of the church today because “we know more about the Bible than the early Christians and realize now that you aren’t supposed to interpret everything in the Bible completely literally–things like the Sermon on the Mount.”
This week’s gospel challenges this particular reading of the Sermon on the Mount and the other “difficult” moral passages of Matthew’s gospel. The author of Matthew emphasizes again and again that Jesus is more interested in actual works of righteousness than he is in pious words. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus saying that whoever hears his words and acts on them will be like a wise man, but whoever hears and does not act will be like a foolish man (7:24-27). This exhortation to not only hear but to do is the interpretive key to the gospel this week. The father’s will is done by the son who actually acts in obedience to the father, not the one who simply says he will act but does not. Actions really do speak louder than words it seems.
If we contextualize this gospel reading, we see there is even more emphasis put on the importance of actions over words. In 21:18-19, Jesus curses the fig tree which has been traditionally interpreted as Jesus symbolically cursing those who do not bear fruit (see 7:15-12 and 12:33 for the background to “good trees” bearing “good fruits,” i.e. the works of righteousness). Later in the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells his listeners that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). And then in chapter 23, Jesus will denounce the scribes and the pharisees because “they do not practice what they teach” (23:3).
With this in mind, the readings for this week should really disturb us, because all of us, in some way, are “tax collectors and prostitutes” who need to change our mind, to turn from wickedness and do what is right, as the reading from Ezekiel exhorts us. The band Arcade Fire has a great song called “City With no Children” with the line: “You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount/ I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts, my doubts about it.” How are we like the millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount, the one with all the right words who is not “bearing fruits of righteousness?”
This week at the CNN/Tea Party Republican Primary Debate, the audience cheered at allowing the death of a 30-year-old who refused to buy health insurance and became seriously ill. In a way, there is a logic to this response. Free-riders are a problem and they drive up the overall healthcare costs. Why should responsible citizens have to pay for the irresponsibility of another? But Jesus demands more: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Mt. 5:42). Jesus didn’t say, “Give to everyone who deserves it” or “Give to those who have displayed marked prudence in their past actions.” Jesus also didn’t say “Give in such a way that will maximize overall utility.” Acting on the words of Jesus will call us to make radical sacrifices sometimes, and to act in ways that are completely counter-intuitive according to societal standards. But as Christians, we’ve heard what Jesus has to say. We’ve said “Yes Lord!” But what ultimately matters is whether our actions will live up to our words.