Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
(Click here for today’s readings)
When Jesus told his disciples to observe the Law in even the smallest detail, the scribes and Pharisees must have been pleased. That’s exactly what they had been saying for generations, and they lived by that principle themselves.
But then Jesus adds: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, the Law is good, but it is a minimum. He gives four examples, and in the coming weeks we will see more, contrasting the Law’s requirements with Jesus’ expectations. Good enough isn’t good enough!
Much later, in Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus makes the same point: "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” He follows this up with a diatribe so horrific, so fierce that you will never hear it in the Sunday readings: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!... Blind guides!... Blind fools!... Serpents, brood of vipers!”
The first reading reminds us that we have a choice to make between good and evil. In our time, good has become synonymous in this country with legal. Legal has become synonymous with Constitutional. Constitutional has become synonymous with free.
Freedom is a great good. It is splendidly celebrated in Norman Rockwell’s “Four freedoms:” from fear, from want, of speech, of worship. But freedom is not the only good, not the only norm. It is, like the law, a minimum, a condition or foundation for accomplishing or promoting greater good.
Freedom to engage in a certain behavior does not guarantee that the behavior is good. On the contrary, just as it is possible to abuse power for one’s one advantage, so too with freedom. It’s a powerful temptation.
Isaiah 5: 20-21 has a diatribe just as ferocious as the one quoted above. It reads in part: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own sight, and prudent in their own esteem!”
St. Paul in the second reading evokes wisdom also, God’s wisdom. When Catholics quote God’s wisdom expressed in the commandments and the moral principles of the Scriptures and of the Church, we are openly mocked. The search for truth has been trumped by the desire for freedom.
This does not apply only to the issues constantly highlighted in the media. It bears on the everyday choices that each one of us makes. Our motives are easily tainted. I may have the right to do something; that doesn’t mean it is always right to do it. Jesus expects more, as in the case of being reconciled before leaving our gift on the altar.
Before us are life and death, good and evil, whichever we choose shall be given us.
Whichever we choose shall be given us. It behooves us to choose wisely and well.