Perhaps a few too many times I’ve asked members of an audience whether they’ve killed anyone lately. I admit that it’s an out-from-left-field question, but I enjoy the surprise I see on people’s faces because they rarely see that coming. But I’m also careful about how I phrase the question, and I never ask for a show of hands. You just never know when a few will get caught up in the moment, raise their hands enthusiastically, and then realize they’ve just incriminated themselves in front of a group of strangers.
These days I merely presume that no one has committed murder that day. “And is that because of your deep devotion to the fifth commandment, or because of sloth? Were you just too lazy to kill anyone this morning? Or did you decide that the disruption to your schedule would be too much?”
Most people get the point. It’s certainly one thing to kill someone, and it’s quite another to wish you had but didn’t. The first might send you to hell, but the second will scarcely make you a saint, no matter the reason for your restraint. The fact is, the thought does count, and that is the point that Jesus makes in his discourse on the commandments, at least in my opinion.
In Matthew 5 Jesus asserted that he had come to abolish neither the law nor the prophets. However, a quick reading of his sermon in that chapter leaves the impression that he actually took the severity of the law and made it one degree tougher. In one sense he did just that, but there he was merely being consistent in his teaching.
On more than one occasion Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, pointing out the obvious: their exterior behavior masked an interior corruption. They may project the image of fervent believers, but in their heart of hearts they are something different altogether. Alive on the outside and dead on the inside, they have no right to lord it over others who are merely more obvious in their sinning.
So what is Jesus up to when he takes adultery as a for-instance and pushes it to the next level? Who hasn’t lusted after someone else? Are people who only think about adultery just as guilty as those who act out on their desires? Are all equally guilty? Or as Peter once asked, “Can no one be saved?”
There’s the rub, and I suspect that on more than one occasion Jesus turned to Peter with a delighted “Exactly!” Jesus maximized the commandments and pushed them to their logical limits, to the point at which all of us are convicted of sin. None of us can save ourselves because no one can follow the commandments perfectly. And were we perfect, such adherence to each and every detail of the law is no more effective at pleasing God than a herd of cattle sent up as a burnt offering. When all is said and done, we are all still sinners. All of us are in need of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. We cannot save ourselves, and so we look to Jesus as he stretches out his arms to us from the cross.
Of course Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets. Had he done so it would give us all permission to slip into personal and communal barbarism. But Jesus does challenge us with a new commandment — to love one another as God has loved us. Here too we fall short — sometimes painfully so — but this is the more positive direction that Jesus prescribes for us.
This brings to mind one last element that I often consider in my own life. Theologians have described God as the good, the true and the beautiful. Nowhere have I ever read that God is the legally-correct. God’s never excused himself by relying on some technicality, and I think God must chuckle at all the technicalities that we run by him when we fall short of being good, true and beautiful. With the patience of a parent, however, God urges us on, with words that may seem tough but in fact are quite hopeful.
So it is that God still says to us “Thou shalt not kill.” But to it he adds this hearty postscript: “And don’t even think about it.” Apparently God expects a lot from us, but he saves us nonetheless.
+On February 8th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to twenty-five guests of my good friend Mary Rudden, who lives in San Francisco. The nucleus of the group consisted of members of her book club, and to my surprise I discovered that most of them are readers of this blog. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet them over the luncheon that followed.
+On February 9th I and my confrere Fr. Don Talafous hosted a group of twenty-five alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, at a reception held in the refectory of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I was grateful for their willingness to brave the storms to attend that evening.
+My travels to and from San Francisco were quite memorable. The outbound plane from Minneapolis was delayed an hour, and once half of us were on board we all had to get off because of mechanical difficulties. They eventually brought in a replacement plane, and we arrived hours late. On the return trip our plane arrived forty-five minutes early. Thank goodness, because I needed that extra time to drive home. It turned out that one tire on my car was low. I stopped to fill it with air, and a few miles later I checked it again. That’s when I discovered the bolt that was lodged in it. I got the tire changed and drove home on the spare, but it meant slow speeds on side roads rather than on the interstate. Off of the interstate you see marvelous things, including the cars driving and parked in the middle of Big Lake in Big Lake, MN, and also on another lake outside of Becker, MN. They were ice fishing, of course. I also discovered a town I never knew existed in Minnesota: Santiago. Who would have thought. So it all turned out to be an adventure.
+As I promised in last week’s post, I am including an example of 12th-century Catalan art that I found rather gruesome, in a detached sort of way. It is an altar frontal from the church of Sant Quirc de Durro, and it is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona. The lower two photos show the more benign subject matter of another altar frontal, this one from the church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, ca. 1200.