Archive for the ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ Category



“As God is my witness…”  “I swear on a stack of Bibles…”  “I swear on my mother’s grave…”

We are used to hearing such phrases and even using them ourselves, when it is urgent that either someone else’s or our own word registers to be true.  When people take formal oaths in giving testimony, it is customary for them to place their right hand on the Bible as they swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God.”  Isn’t it strange that we can’t just take a person’s word that what he is saying is the truth.  The fact that we cannot attests to the general experience we have of deception.  Duplicity abounds.  And, truth be known, most of us have a recollection of being less than honest at least in minor things, a time or two.

Now we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen as he challenges us to be different, if we would be his disciples.  By now it should be becoming apparent to us that to follow this New Way, to live by Jesus’ standards, is to follow him on a very narrow path.  Search as you might, you are not going to find any “wiggle room.” Jesus is never going to say, “Except in these cases, I want you to be truthful.  Under these circumstances you might lie, but otherwise, I want you to try to be honest.”  Jesus urges the telling of the truth even if it kills us.  That is what he did.  Remember, to follow Jesus is to imitate him, to walk in his footsteps, and to be his continuing presence in the world.

Some might conclude that since the Sermon on the Mount is known as the Magna Carta of the coming Kingdom, what Jesus teaches us on the Mount should be obeyed only among fellow members of the Kingdom.  He is telling us how we should act when we are at church or when we are with others of the baptized.  Certainly we ought to be honest in church and among our sisters and brothers in the Lord.  That is not where it stops, though.  We must remember that wherever we go and among whatever people we find ourselves, we always represent the Kingdom.  We have been baptized into Christ who has vested each of us as his other self.  The white garments put on those emerging from the Waters of Baptism are signs we interpret as declaring that they have “put on Christ.”

We can all call to mind famous people whose images have been tarnished and even destroyed because they were caught in lies.  Presidents have had to resign their presidencies.  Icons of the sports world have tumbled from their altars of adulation because their deceptions were exposed.  Using performance-enhancing drugs is deceptive.  Breaking one’s marriage vows is another form of cheating.  The point is, once a person is exposed as a liar it is very difficult to trust that person again.  Integrity once lost is very difficult to regain.

One of the greatest sorrows one can suffer is to be the victim of a lie told by a trusted friend.  Is there a more poignant moment that the meeting in the Garden between Jesus and his friend?

Jesus is the model of what he teaches.  He does not ask anything of us that he does not practice himself.  “I am the way, he said, “and the truth, and the life.”  That does not mean that some things cannot be kept “in pectora,” that is, held in secret.  Remember the time that the woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus.  He was asked what should be done to her as a fitting punishment for her offense?  He did not respond, because to do so would either have exposed him to be in defiance of The Law and, therefore, subject to being stoned himself, or, agreeing with the requisites of The Law, he would have allowed something opposed to his Way.  Jesus is silent before the accusers.  He stoops and traces his finger in the sand.  Some have said that they thought Jesus started listing their sins in the sand.  I doubt that.    Instead, he follows The Law and tells them that the one among them who is without sin should be the first one to cast the stone. There is a moment of confrontation with the particulars of The Law.  And in that moment, they might have been inspired to experience the call to mercy and forgiveness, as one by one they left the woman in her humiliation.  “Neither do I condemn you, “he said.  “Be on your way, but from now on, do not sin any more.”

When the Sanhedrin or Pilate question Jesus during his passion, he remains silent.  They are not entitled to the truth.  Even so, he will not lie even to save his life.

The challenge for us in accepting the call to discipleship is to be people of integrity.  Say what you mean.  Mean what you say.  Respect confidences.  Be silent when questioner has no right to the sought information.  We hear Jesus instruct us, “Say ‘Yes” when you mean ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ when you mean ‘No.’” That should be simple enough, shouldn’t it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It all depends on the circumstances.  But whatever the circumstances might be, lying is never justified, not when you are striving to imitate Jesus and walk in his ways, not even should telling the truth lead you to where it led him.





Something happens to you as you sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his sermon.  You are being stretched.  If you have been listening closely, surely by now several times you have wondered, “Who can do this?”  You may even have concluded a time or two that what Jesus commands is beyond you.  If you have not had those feelings so far, you may well come to that conclusion now.

So, what is happening?  First, know that Jesus is not hiding anything from those considering being disciples in terms of the implications for disciples.  He is not like many contemporary recruiters who, in order to draw in new members, paint glowing pictures of all the benefits that come to you should you join their ranks.  They use words like “finest” and “bravest” in settings so noble that for some the attraction will be almost irresistible.  There is little or no mention of the downside, the risks, or areas prone to disappointment.  The listener is told to dare to join this elite group.  You owe it to yourself.

Jesus, on the other hand, without compromise, puts the demands squarely before you, so that you know from square one the implications of following him.  The command is to be satisfied with nothing less than perfection.  The standard?  Your heavenly Father.  You will hear it stated with absolute clarity in the present context: “You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus is the full revelation of God.  He will say elsewhere, “Those who see me see the Father.”  What should begin to be clear to you is that the disciple is meant to be able to say, “Those who see me see Jesus, and if they see Jesus, they see the Father.”  That may sound bold, but that does seem to be what Jesus is calling his disciples to do and to be.

“Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”  Who came to your mind as you heard that phrase?  Who was the person that hurt you?  You might think of enemy in the broader sense, those powers that oppose our country, those with whom we are engaged in warfare.  They should not be excluded here.  But don’t stop there.  Go deeper.  Stay closer to home.  The enemy may be the one who does violence to you or to someone you love.  The enemy may be the one who destroys your name and reputation.  Put a face on any one of those whose recollection surfaces a painful situation with which you resonate and then hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies.”  How easy will that be to love that person who is the enemy that hurt you?

Every once in awhile there are reports of people that take heroic strides in the face of horrendous happenings to put the Lord’s command into practice.  A mother went to the trial and conviction of her daughter’s rapist and killer.  Before his sentencing, the mother made a statement in court.  She said that the killer had to know that she forgave him for what he had done.  She would hold him up in prayer every day.

Two parents went to South Africa when their daughter, a social worker there, was murdered by three from the very group she had ministered to.  The three were tried and convicted of the terrible crime.  The parents happened to be of considerable means.  They decided that they wanted to do something that would be a monument to their daughter.  During the trial they were moved to pity the killers.  They built a bakery that would serve as a training facility that would prepare the workers to find employment.  Then they went back to the courts and worked for the early release of the three Black men and brought them to the bakery, trained them, and help them to become managers of the operation.

In both of these cases, it was Christian faith that motivated the parents to action, to forgiveness, and to love.

It is instinctive for the one who is wronged to pray for vengeance.  At least it is true that many do.  When your name is destroyed, you want vindication.  That is not the course of action that Jesus puts before disciples.  In another place, when it comes to injury, Jesus will say, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other.”  In other words, don’t react in kind.  The teaching demands that the wounded love the one who did the wrong.  There is no alternative.

“Pray for your persecutors.”  Martyrs are notorious for following this course of action.  Perhaps they learned from Jesus on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”  Prayer does something to the one who prays.  It changes the heart.  Try praying for someone you dislike, someone who has hurt you, and you will find your attitude toward that person begins to change.  The same thing will happen when you pray for the one who did evil toward you.  Pray and you will find that you begin to think of forgiveness.  You may even begin to think of reconciliation.  Certainly, you will find the grace to let go.  You will begin to see possibilities for the other; or you will come to understandings about human weakness or the disorders that give rise to the bad things that people do to each other.  Once understanding becomes part of your consciousness, you are not far from being able to forgive.  Of course, you will have no control over whether or not your forgiveness will be received and accepted.  That requires grace working in the other’s heart.  But you have made the offer.  You are free.

Jesus tells us that there is no room for hatred in the heart of the disciple.  Why?  Because God does not hate.  God hates sin, but never the sinner.  Every person born is created in the image and likeness of God.  God loves every person and wants every person to live with God for eternity.  This includes those most despicable ones in human history.  A definition of Hell is, that place where there is no love – no love for God, no love for the other and no love for self.  Horrible to contemplate as it is, Hell begins when one refuses to love forever.

Some religious people think that God loves only members of their religion.  They have a corner on the way into heaven.  Some Catholics used to quote with satisfaction that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  The assumption was that all others were destined for a place where God is not.  Vatican Council II changed that with the declaration that there are different paths to God.  Not a few where shocked and angered when Pope Francis opined that even atheists could go to heaven.

God wills the salvation of all people, the Scriptures said.  God’s will is realized more often than it is not.  “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  That is what God does.  Jesus came to understand that his mission went beyond the Jewish community and was meant to embrace even Gentiles.  His proclamation is the universality of God’s love.  That must be the significance of disciples’ actions done in union with Christ.

The love that is commanded by Christ is not romantic love; it is the love that expresses itself in service.  In Eucharist, Christ gives his body and blood and invites the Assembly to eat and drink.  If we do that, if we take and eat, if we take and drink, they we are responsible to put the Eucharist into action by loving even the unlovable.  Let’s not romanticize this.  That is not easy to do.  It is what we must strive to do if we are to be with Jesus on the Way.  That is what it means to be a disciple.

If there are those who have injured and/or betrayed you, start with prayer.  Pray for the grace to let go of the injury.  Pray for the injurer or betrayer.  Pray for the grace.  Some things can only be done with God’s help.  Pray.  Let yourself be stretched.  The grace will be granted and you will find your way to love.




Think back to a line in the Lord’s Prayer.  Someone said, be careful what you pray for.  That just might apply here.  We pray that the Father forgive us our debts, or trespasses as we forgive those who have acted wrongly toward us.  Those who hear for the first time the condition placed on God’s forgiveness might have a moment of pause and ask the person next to them if they had heard Jesus correctly.  “Did he just say what I think he said?”

Twice-told tales lose their impact through repetition.  The same is true of axioms and admonitions.  If you have said the Lord’s Prayer at least once a day for many years, imagine how many times that phrase has tripped from your tongue.  By now the words might have very little impact, giving you slight reason for pause.  That was true for me until I prayed the words in the context of my need to forgive another and had to wonder if I could.

Now, as a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer and our need to forgive that flows from it, we are confronted with what is tantamount to a ban on judging another’s deeds.  There is much to ponder here.  Just as the first audience might have squirmed at this point, so might we as we come to understand the implications for our own interior being.  God’s forgiveness and judgment hang in the balance.  How earnestly do we desire God’s forgiveness?  How confident are we when we think about our own standing before God in our time of judgment?

Have you ever noticed how understandable your own sins are?  We might even be quick to conclude that everybody sins just the way we do.  We are just human, after all.  Our sins aren’t that bad.  It is the sins that you could never imagine yourself committing, sins toward which you feel no compulsion or temptation that provoke judgment and condemnation.  It is that dichotomy that Jesus demands us to look at.

What is not implied here is the suspension of all moral judgment.  There is a code of ethics, a moral law by which we are all to live.  The Ten Commandments still apply.  We are called to walk uprightly in the Lord to the degree that can be the Lord’s other self and seek always to do the will of the Father.  That is the ideal for which we should strive.  When we are honest, we know that sometimes we fall shy of the mark.  We recognize we have sinned.  That is precisely the moment we ray for forgiveness.  Usually we conclude that God grants us the forgiveness we seek.  Most of the time, we don’t give that forgiveness a second thought.

We move into the attitude that Jesus condemns when we cease being concerned about our own sins, when we find them so understandable that what we do hardly troubles our consciences.  But let’s think about this a moment.  If our faults are that basic to human actions, and therefore, understandable, from where will come our need to reform our lives and to repent for our sins?

Another consideration.  From the language, it seems clear that Jesus is talking about values and attitudes exercised within the community.  We are taught to pray to “Our Father.”  He speaks about “brothers” (and we would add “sisters’) in the example he uses regarding the speck in the other’s eye.  The “other” is someone we ought to know fairly well.  After all, we work together and pry together.  We are baptized into the same Christ.  We share the One Bread and the One Cup.  While the admonition might apply to those beyond the community, there is no doubt that it applies to those within.

How much do we know about the inner workings of another person, even someone we think we know fairly well?  The fact is, very little.  We may know the outline of the person’s life.  We may have shared experiences.  But no matter how well we know the other, we can never perceive the world through the other’s eyes.  We don’t know how events shaped his attitudes or why she fears the things she does.  We know the external.  We are used to the sound of the voice.  We recognize physical attributes.  After even limited exchanges, our conversations become patterned.  We may know how he will react.  We know very little of the “why.”  But that is precisely what one needs to know before a valid judgment can be made.  This is not about the good or evil of the deed, but about the degree of responsibility or culpability for what was done.

It is when we presume to understand and then rush to judgment that we go against Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus talks about the speck in the brother’s eye and the beam in one’s own.  None of us would want to be called sanctimonious or judgmental, but that is what we are when our primary interest is condemning the faults of others and move them toward eternal punishment.  The conservative Evangelical right evidences that attitude. They do not seem reluctant to consign people to damnation.  (During the recent presidential campaign, that kind of judgment was unleashed on those who voted for a certain candidate.)  The call to forgiveness and reconciliation are not heralded nearly as well.

Some saw as scandalous the directive from some bishops that forbade “pro-choice” politicians from receiving Holy Communion, even naming the politicians publicly.  The fact that it is forbidden for anyone to make that judgment about another’s worthiness to receive did not stand in the way of some making such proclamations.  There was no invitation to dialog about values and attitudes that might have influenced a good and practicing Catholic senator or governor in his or her moral decision to be pro-choice.  Instead of the clear-voiced message that “all are welcome here,” the message heard by many was one of exclusion.  We call that excommunication.  Would it be so bad if we as church were criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them?  That was the charge that was shouted against Jesus and led to his crucifixion.

So, what are we to do?  Far more of our time needs to be focused on the formation of our own consciences.  We must look clearly at those sins or faults that we might be tempted to ignore.  We cannot use the excuse that the wrong we do is understandable because that is just the way we are.  If our tempers rage out of control, we must recognize our need to be less self-centered.  Work to acquire an inner peace, even as we deal with those things that might have made us vulnerable to the temper tantrums.

If we are dishonest and are prone to take what is not ours, rather than deluding ourselves into thinking that we are only exacting occult compensation that should come to us, we have to look in the mirror and see clearly one who is dishonest and recognize the need to make restitution.

If we gossip with abandon and think nothing of it, we have to learn to recognize the destructive nature of what we do and learn to be deaf and silent, i.e., neither listen to the gossip, nor be the source of it, nor pass it on.

Jesus tells us gathered with him on the Mount that when we have all of our own disorders under control, when we have removed the beam from our own eyes, then we will be able to see clearly enough to ease the speck from the eyes of our sister and brother.

I visited a woman in prison.  Then in her late 30’s, she had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for something that happened when she was sixteen years old.  The crime was sordid and sensational.  She was present when the murder happened, but did not participate in the deed.  That had no impact in terms of modifying the sentence.  Those who have known her through the years say that there is nothing of the sixteen-year-old girl in the woman currently serving her sentence.  She has achieved a college degree.  She spends much of her time mentoring other women in her prison.  Many of those who know her and her situation have appealed to the authorities for compassion, testifying that she more than merits being eligible for parole.  So far, it all has fallen on deaf ears.  Her only hope is that the Supreme Court will affirm a challenge to the constitutionality of sentencing youngsters to that type of life sentence.  It is not only individuals that need reform.

If nothing else moves us, we must hear the warning in the Lord’s harsh words.  “The measure with which you measure will be used to measure you.”  I want to be able to stand before the Lord and admit that I might have erred on the side of leniency and that perhaps I was too quick to forgive.  And certainly I won’t object if the Lord errs in that direction on my behalf.  How about you?