Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The context behind the Mosaic Law was relationship. God desired an intimate relationship with His people and He prohibited certain activities that would cause damage to this relationship. However, as we all know, an intimate relationship must be built on so much more than merely avoiding certain activities. An intimate relationship also involves entrusting one’s heart to another. This is how Jesus fulfills the Law. A central aspect of Jesus’ mission is to transform human hearts, which goes beyond mere physical activity and the capacity of the Law.
Jesus gives two examples in today’s Gospel of dispositions of the heart that need to change in order for people to be in an intimate relationship with the Lord: unrighteous anger and lust. These two dispositions of the heart are seeds that produce the rotten fruits of murder and adultery, actions which gravely violated the Mosaic Law. By attacking anger and lust, Jesus is going to the root of the problem and seeking to purify the hearts of His disciples so that they might be free to love God completely, both inside and outside.
The internal acts of consenting to unrighteous anger and lust are offenses against the dogma of God’s Fatherhood. When I consent to these thoughts and emotions and pour time and energy into entertaining them, my internal disposition denies God’s Fatherhood by failing to see and treat another human being as my brother or sister in Christ. The internal disposition that objectifies or uses another diminishes the dignity and equality of the other and strips them of their common kinship with us in Jesus Christ. In violating this kinship, we also violate the one who establishes it: God the Father.
How does this happen? Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ treatment of anger to see if we can come to a deeper understanding. Jesus tells His disciples that if someone uses the word, raqa, towards another, they would be subject to the punishment of Gehenna. Raqa, is a Semitic expression that is difficult to translate, especially in its context as a curse word. One scholar suggests that the closest expressions we have in English are the expressions, “Drop dead,” or “Go to hell!” In saying or wishing such a reality, Jesus is suggesting that we are seeking to cast someone into the pits of Gehenna. In wishing the punishment of Gehenna upon another we are, in a sense, already internally in Gehenna ourselves, in our minds and hearts.
Gehenna, an image lost on our modern minds, was a very aggressive image for first century Jews. Ge-Hinnom (Gehenna) was a valley in southern Jerusalem where, during Jesus’ time, the city’s garbage was incinerated. It was also the burial ground for deceased bodies of poor people who had no burial plots or families to provide for a proper burial. In addition, it was the valley where the Canaanites offered human sacrifices (often young children) to their gods. It was a repulsive place with a rotten history that most people wanted to avoid.
To avoid the repulsiveness of Gehenna, Jesus uses graphic battlefield-like language. He says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it our and throw it away…If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” It is not uncommon in the wake of military battles to find soldiers with serious wounds which demanded amputation in order to preserve their lives. Wounds are a part of warfare. Few soldiers escape war unscathed. In using this language, Jesus is boldly proclaiming that discipleship with Him will involve going to war with what is going on internally that is not of God.
According to the teaching of our Lord, sustaining spiritual warfare-like wounds is not an optional in the Christian life; it is an essential element. One commentator reflecting on today’s Gospel writes, “Our Lord suggests that the Christian life is a battlefield. Only the squeamish and the cowardly return untouched and ‘whole’ from battle…If I find nothing in myself to discipline, it is because I suffer from an adolescent insecurity that wants nothing changed, nothing challenged, and because I have installed myself in the illusion that everything about me is already perfect. Only the others need to change, only they have to undergo radical operations, and then all will be well with me in the world.”
Yet, the question remains, “How do we go to war with thoughts and feelings contrary to the Lord’s love?” Jesus gives us a glimpse at the answer in today’s Gospel: “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.” In other words, Jesus is suggesting immediate action without hesitation against movements of mind and/or heart contrary to His love. What are some ways we can be faithful to the Lord through immediate action? Let me suggest three.
First, we can frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Warfare against sin begins in the confessional. In the confessional, we allow God’s grace to go to war with our sinfulness. We surrender not only actions but also dispositions contrary to Jesus for spiritual healing, and in many cases, spiritual amputation. In addition, a sinner reconciled in confession is not only reconciled with God, but also with the Church, the entire Body of Christ. It offers spiritual reconciliation with all the faithful and it helps heal the damage done by our sins against the Fatherhood of God and our common kinship in Christ. The grace of this sacrament keeps us humble, reflective, and never content with mediocrity.
Second, we can choose to reject any thought that is contrary to Jesus Christ. St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that in every thought inspired by the Evil One, there is always a lie that needs to be rejected. He recommends immediately rejecting the particular lie in the name of Jesus, and then recommitting ourselves to the truth that helps combat the lie.
Third, we can take time in prayer to surrender our negative or sinful feelings toward someone in prayer. This is especially powerful in the Mass and in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Just as Jesus surrendered the wounds of His Passion as a gift to His Heavenly Father, we too can surrender our wounds to the Lord in prayer as a gift to our Heavenly Father, recognizing that our sufferings are a share in the sufferings of His Son.
Peace in Christ,