Pentecost - Fifth Sunday After (13th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Retaliation and Love

By: Rev. Thomas J. Gerrard


The words of to-day's Gospel are taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  Our Lord is explaining to His disciples His new Gospel of true blessedness.  He is teaching them the conditions of that happiness which is to be obtained only in the kingdom which He came on earth to establish.  The poor is spirit, the clean of heart, the peace-makers, the merciful, they who hunger and thirst after justice, these are the people who shall populate the kingdom. 

Yet, if the kingdom is to be primarily a kingdom of the spirit, one in which mercy and justice and detachment are the conditions of living, nevertheless, it is also an external kingdom.  The inward life is to be normally promoted and controlled by an outward system.  Our lord had no sooner spoken His eight beatitudes than He turned to His disciples and said: "You are the light of the world.  A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid.  Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house.  So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

Our Lord, however, knew what was in man.   He knew the tendency to make an end in itself of that which was merely a means to an end. He knew the tendency to rest in the letter of the law instead of passing on to its spirit.  He knew the whole history of the scribes and Pharisees and what had been their influence on the people whose spiritual interests they should have served.  Therefore, he warned them against mere externality in the matter of religion.  Not that the old law was in any way bad in itself.  "Do not think that I am come to destroy the law."  No, it had to be enriched by the more spiritual law of the Gospel.  And unless the more spiritual law were observed, there could be no entry into the new kingdom.  "For I tell you that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."

A modern Jew has divided the Pharisees into seven different types.  first, there is the "shoulder" Pharisee.  He is the one who carries his good actions on his shoulder, so that all men may see them and praise him.  The second is called the "wait a little" Pharisee.  He is always saying; "Wait a little until I have completed the good act which I am about to perform."  He is always telling people of the great plans which he has in view.  But somehow these plans are never realized.  thirdly, there is the "bruised" Pharisee.  He is one of those men who are always on the lookout for evil, and who, in order to avoid it, run against the wall and bruise themselves.  Fourthly, there is one who is called the "pestle" Pharisee.  He is so called because he walks with his head downwards like the pestle in the mortar.  He has made  up his mind to see things upside down.  Hence he is always finding fault with others because he cannot see them aright.  The fifth is called the "profit and loss" Pharisee.  He pretends that he has done all the good that is to be done.  When anybody else has a proposal, he asks in surprise: "Is there really something still to do?"  Lastly, there are two worthy classes of Pharisee, the "God-fearing" Pharisee, like Job, and the "God-loving" Pharisee, like Abraham.  But the five other classes are contemptible.  Their name has passed into a byword to signify that which is hypocritical, that which is virtuous only on the outside.  Yet at the same time all was not bad amongst the Pharisees.  It was a good thing to wash one's self very often.  But it was not a good thing to suppose that much washing made up for shortcomings in mercy and kindness and meekness.

As an example of the law which extends so much further than the written letter, our Lord takes the fifth Commandment.  The commandment not to kill covers not only murder, but all acts which injure or even tend to injure our neighbor's life.  It prohibits, therefore, fighting, quarrelling, injurious words, scandal, bad example, anger, hatred and revenge.  We are indeed warned to have a special fear of those who would kill the soul.  Hence, scandal and bad example are counted as signs against the fifth commandment because they lead to the injury and spiritual death of our neighbor's soul.

Our Lord chooses the sin of anger as the one calling for special notice.  And the reason is that anger is one of the seven capital sins.  It is the source and origin of the other sins against the fifth Commandment.  You have heard that it was said to them of old: "Thou shall not kill.  And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment."  Anger would lead to contempt, and contempt to detraction.  Therefore, the law in its fullest extent must be endowed with a sufficient sanction.  "Whosoever shall say, 'Thou fool,' shall be in danger of hell fire."

Our Lord, however, is not content with merely stating the prohibition and calling attention to the penalty.  That was rather the method of the Pharisee.  Our Lord proposes the opposite virtue.  The mind requires something positive to which to cling.  To fight against vice one needs to fight for virtue.  In this case, it is the virtue of meekness.  The unspeakable meekness of Christ is the motive which can nullify our anger.  Anger is ordinarily an inordinate appetite for vengeance.  But the whole of our Lord's Passion was the very contradictory of all this.  His sacrifice was a laying down of His life for the sake of those who had sinned against Him.  He would conquer the carnal passion for vengeance, meeting it with the spiritual remedy of meekness.  

Thus is the anger which separates brethren to be overcome.  If a gift be brought to the altar, it is not acceptable so long as the passion for vengeance continues.  Justice with regard to God involves justice between man and man.  "If, therefore, thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee, leave there thy offering before the altar and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and them coming thou shall offer thy gift."

In a similar way we may apply our Lord's teaching to the whole of the spiritual life.  First, let us take our justice towards God.  The ancient law was: "I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of bondage.  Thou shall not have strange gods before Me."  In the light of the Gospel, this commandment extends to all the chief acts of religion.  It not only forbids the worship of false gods, but it positively enjoins the worship of the one true and living God.  It imposes the obligation of believing in Him, hoping and loving Him, adoring Him as our supreme Lord and Master.

In these days there is special need to guard against the Pharisaic observation of the law.  On all hands we see the supreme majesty of God impugned and the self-sufficiency of man exalted.  This open rebellion against God's supremacy tends to lessen the inward respect for it amongst those who professedly accept it.  There is most evident in non-Catholic forms of belief.  There is a lip service which acknowledges Him to be Master, but together with this outward service there is a resentment of His word if it happens to clash with a private judgment.

In the Catholic Church, however, we teach our children to fight strongly against every tendency to undervalue God's supremacy and God's word.  We count it as a sin against the First commandment to admit a willful doubt, an act of misbelief, or a denial of any article of faith.  We insist on certain standards of knowledge of the doctrines of the Church.  We teach that faith is a gift which may be lost by the neglect of spiritual duties, by reading bad books, or by participating in the services of a false religion.

Moreover, the Church regulates the worship of God by laying down definite laws for His worship.  She tells us that we are to keep Sundays and holydays of obligation holy by hearing Mass and resting from servile works.  She obliges us to go to Confession at least once a year if we have committed grievous sin.  She directs that we must receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year, at Easter or thereabouts.  All these things she requires of us under pain of mortal sin.

But here again, even within the borders of the Church, the tendency towards a Pharisaic observance asserts itself.  There are those who will only go to Confession and Communion once a year.  There are those who will only go to Mass on Sunday and stay away from Benediction habitually.  There are those who will quibble about the law as to servile works on Sunday.

It is the gospel which redeems us from all this literalness and narrowness.  The Gospel reveals to us the great condescension of God, who, though supreme Lord of all things, yet deigned to become a servant in order that He might draw all men to Himself.  Having regard to this, His great love for us, we love Him in return.  We do not look all round the law to see how little we are bound to give Him.  We think of our fallen state and we think of the high destiny which He has called us.  Then we see that it is a privilege to serve Him, and that the more we give Him the richer we become.

On the other hand, there is a class of people who are far removed from this literal interpretation of the law, and yet serve with a Pharisaic observance.  They love to be seen at all the services of the Church, but their worship is chiefly external.  Indeed we all need to examine ourselves and ask whether our external service is the outcome of the inward spirit of worship.  This is one of the first problems of the devout life - how to strike a due equipoise between external and internal religion.  We learn to strike that equipoise by fixing our minds on the final end of worship, namely, to acknowledge the supremacy of God, and to adore Him as Master of the world.

Secondly comes our justice towards our neighbor.  Here again the Gospel lays down for us the higher law of love.  "Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself."  To many people perhaps, this commandment may seem to be a very noble ideal, yet rather beyond the attainment of ordinary human nature.  It certainly is a noble ideal, but if rightly interpreted quite practical for the ordinary Christian.  "Do as you would like to be done by" - that is a fair rule of interpretation.  That applies to all our neighbors, even to our enemies.  The law which obliges us to love our enemies does not imply that we are to go out of our way to do them great acts of kindness, to give them of our possessions and to promote their interest generally in the world.  But it does imply that we must not do things which unnecessarily tend to keep up the enmity.  We have no right, for instance, to "cut" an enemy in the street or greet him with black looks.  We must at least be civil and polite to him.

The true Christian spirit, however, does not stop to inquire how little one may do, but rather how much one can do.  The two great precepts of charity find their ripest fruits in seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy.  Let this be our practical conclusion to-day, to examine this list of good works and see what is our attitude towards it.  To feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbor the homeless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead, to convert the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive injuries, to pray for the living and the dead.  First, do we do any of these things at all?  Secondly, do we do them from a right motive, not to be seen of men, but rather because our Lord said: "Inasmuch as you did it unto these, you did it unto Me"?