“The heart is where the battle lines must be drawn in our crusade against sin.”
Jesus Christ reveals the full story of what God expects from His children. Our Lord is not dispensing with the requirements of the Old Law; He is fulfilling and perfecting them.
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”–Matthew 5:17-19
With the arrival of the Kingdom, we can no longer merely comply with the rules and regulations that facilitate human interaction. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ means every human being is expected to live by the Law of Love. This Law is a much higher standard than simply following the rules. It requires patience, sacrifice, humility, and the gift of grace.
In this season of Lent, it is good to remind ourselves that it is not only our actions that will be judged, but more importantly the disposition of our hearts. Whatever is truly in our hearts is often expressed in our speech, and this ultimately determines our actions, be they good or evil.
“Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”–Matthew 15:11
The seeds of our sins take root in the heart through our memories, our intellect and our will, especially when influenced by the vices of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. These are the dispositions of the heart Jesus is trying to get us to recognize and eliminate. These tendencies embedded in the heart lead us to act in ways we may not even understand. St. Paul knew this experience.
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”–Romans 7:15
Jesus challenges us to identify and eliminate the source of our bad actions. One example is anger, which is a disposition of the heart. Anger can lead to a form of homicide. This happens when we ruin someone’s reputation by speaking ill of them. This is a way of destroying another person.
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother[b] shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults[c] his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”–Matthew 5:21-22
There are other equally serious dispositions of the heart that can lead to disaster.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”–Matthew 5:27-30
This is shocking language from the Son of God. To soften it, we might be tempted to believe Jesus is only using a literary device known as hyperbole – intentionally exaggerating for effect. After all, Jesus can’t really expect us to pluck out our eye or cut off our right hand?
Or can He?
Maybe we should consider the alternative Jesus proposes to His listeners. He is trying to make clear, to those who will listen, that sin has very serious consequences. Perhaps the better question is whether an individual would be willing to cut off their hand or go to hell.
Of course, what Jesus is really suggesting is that we pluck out or cut off the sin, which, if we are strongly attached to it, can feel like losing a part of our body.
But Jesus also wants us to understand where sin begins.
The heart is where the battle lines must be drawn in our crusade against sin. In order to be victorious, we must struggle to change our actions, but we must also seek to drive from our heart any negative influences that are leading to those actions.
So, just how do we do that?
Adopting the language of medicine, we need to find an antibody for the vices in the human heart. No one is immune from these impurities, but there is an effective vaccine available to protect us.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”–Matthew 5:43-48
The antidote to the vices residing in the human heart is love. Again, the language of these verses from Matthew may sound strange to modern ears. Are we really expected to put up with our enemies? Jesus goes further and tells us we should actually love them; we should even pray for them. This requires humility, sacrifice, grace and, oh yes, someone to model this behavior for us.
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’”–Luke 23:34
If we all fully understood the need to purify our hearts, we would set about doing it immediately.
Jesus offers us some encouragement in this effort when He concludes this discourse on sin with one of the most direct statements in all of Scripture. It is His final word on the topic, and it establishes the standard for anyone who wishes to enter into a full relationship with God.
“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”–Matthew 5:48
No small prayers this week, let us pray to be made perfect.
Article Copyright © Deacon Mark Danis
Image credit: “Sermon on the Mount Altarpiece” (detail) | Henrik Olrik, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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