Teaching the Commandments
February 16, 2014
The challenge of Jesus’s words in today’s gospel is this: not only does he ask us to follow God’s commandments; he also asks us to teach others to do the same. He says that whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments of God and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But, whoever obeys and teaches the commandments will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, Jesus is asking us to not only obey God’s commands, but to teach others to obey them as well. Now, when we hear this command of Jesus to teach others, we should not imagine that Christ is asking us to obtain a theological degree or become a classroom catechist. We are to teach others to obey God’s commands by the example of our lives.
For his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, he took the video of their wedding ceremony and had it transferred onto a DVD, as a surprise for her. The plan was to have a simple dinner together followed by a movie—their movie. It was a date she never made. Two months before the anniversary, she died of kidney cancer. So, when the anniversary came, he took the DVD and placed it in the player. Then he sat down in the family room to watch it, smiling, laughing, and crying all at the same time. His eldest son, an 18-year-old teenager, came in and sat down next to him to watch for a while. He saw his father on the screen, only a few years older than he was now. He saw his mother, so young and so happy. He only sat by his father for a while, because he knew his father needed space by himself to celebrate this first anniversary without her. It certainly had been difficult for the son and his two younger brothers to lose their mother. But, it was just as difficult for them to watch their father grieving the loss of the love of his life.
Yet they were making it. The family was still intact. They continued to be a family. And somehow they knew how to do this right from the beginning. As they were coming home from hospice on the day that she died, the oldest boy took his mother’s seat in the front of the van. He was the first to break the exhausted silence. He turned to his father and to his brothers in the back seat and said, “Well, it’s just the four of us now. We will need to take care of one another.” Now, no one told him to say this. No one instructed him to assume a more mature role in this grieving and broken family. But he had been taught how to live and what to do by the love that he had always seen between his mother and his father. It was a love that was both serious and funny, romantic and routine, flirtatious and forgiving. It was a love that surrounded him as an infant, a love that he experienced in the fun of family vacations and in the dialog and teasing at meals. It was a love that he saw in the faithfulness present in the hospital room. He and his brothers knew how to live, knew how to sacrifice, knew how to be family. They knew how to follow the commandment of God to love one another because they were taught by the example of the love that their mother and father shared with each other.
We are always teaching by the way that we live. Either teaching people to follow God’s commandments or teaching them to break them. We are either showing the people in our family, at work, at school, in our neighborhood how to live well, or how to make our lives a disaster. Today, then, it is appropriate to be thankful for the people in our lives whose love has taught us how to live well. It is also right to re-double our own efforts to be the best example we can be to others. Because if we obey the commandments of God and teach others how to obey them, we will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Beyond the Ten Commandments
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5: 17-37
It is sometimes said that the Ten Commandments are the heart of the Jewish-Christian tradition and that following the Ten Commandments is the way of faith. But, such a thought is certainly wrong. The Ten Commandments are the minimal requirements for both Christians and Jews. Anyone who does not obey the Ten Commandments would not only fail as a believer, but as a human being. All people must try to avoid murder, theft, lying, and adultery if any human society is to survive. So, we as Christians are certainly called to obey the Ten Commandments, but we must also recognize that we are called to do more than simply follow these minimal requirements.
Jesus expects us to be people of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Those are qualities that cannot be legislated. A daycare center was having trouble with parents picking up their children at the end of school day. The teachers, who had their own families, could not leave until the tardy parents arrived. So, they thought that they would solve the problem by instilling a regulation. Parents who were not on time to pick up their children would have to pay a fine. But this new regulation—rather than helping the matter—made things worse. Before the fine was set, parents were motivated to arrive on time out of kindness to the teachers’ needs. But once the fine was established, the whole matter became an economic exchange. Many parents were more than happy to pay the fine if it added flexibility to their day.
You can legislate a fine but you cannot legislate kindness. A commandment can prescribe a punishment, but it cannot lead us to what is ideal and good. This is why Jesus speaks the way he does in today’s gospel. He accepts the Ten Commandments and even names them: Thou shall not kill. But Jesus wants his followers to know that they are called to more than just this minimal requirement. They are not only asked to avoid murder. They are asked to avoid anger, harsh judgment, and prejudice that fuel so much violence in our world. Developing these qualities cannot be legislated.
You and I are challenged by the words of Jesus. We cannot be content merely to follow minimal requirements. We might be able to say, “You know, I never killed anyone.” But do we bear anger in our heart against people who are different or who disagree with us or who have hurt us? Jesus is asking us to let that anger go. We might be able to say, “I never committed adultery.” But what is our commitment to our marriage? Do we try to understand our spouse? Do we compromise? Are we willing to seek counseling when communication breaks down? These are the deeper values to which Jesus calls us. We might be able to say, “I never bore false witness against anyone.” But do we speak out when someone’s character is demeaned in our presence? Do we remain silent when a family member or friend makes a decision that is disastrous to him or herself or to others?
The Ten Commandments are part of Jesus’ teaching, and we should obey them. But we should only see them as minimal requirements. Jesus is calling us to something that no law can demand. He is calling us to live our lives with hearts filled with justice, mercy and love.
How’s That Working for You?
February 16, 2020
Dr. Phil is an American TV personality. He does have a degree in psychology, but he is not licensed to practice in any of the fifty states. This does not stop Dr. Phil. He has made a fortune by giving advice to anyone who would listen. I think he is successful, because his approach is blunt and no nonsense. One of his favorite sayings questions a person’s judgment by asking “How is that working for you?” I saw an interview in which a woman confided in him that about twice a month her husband became drunk and would beat her up. Her plan was to become an even better and more docile wife, hoping he would stop drinking. Dr. Phil said, “How’s that working for you?” And, of course, it was not working at all. That is why she was talking to Dr. Phil. Dr. Phil’s approach is to state the obvious. What is obvious to us is that often we make bad choices and make them over and over again.
Today’s First Reading from the Book of Sirach would appreciate Dr. Phil’s method. It lays out our moral choices in a blunt, no nonsense way. It says our choices are good or evil, life or death, water or fire. We can choose any one. But if we choose evil, we should not be shocked to find we are unhappy. If we put our hand into the fire, we should not be surprised that it is burnt. Sirach is telling us that God’s commands are not an arbitrary set of rules to test our obedience. God’s commands are the way to life. If we follow them, we will be happy. If we choose something else, it will harm us.
You and I have made choices that have harmed us. We know that Jesus tells us to serve others, especially those who are poor or in need. Therefore, we should be people of generosity who give to others out of what we have received. We have received a lot, enough to make a difference. Yet what we choose is to sit in front of the TV or computer screen and fritter our time away. Our life becomes smaller and smaller. It takes on an emptiness. We ask, “Why does my life have so little meaning?”
We know that Jesus tells us that all people have value and that everyone deserves our respect. Yet we choose prejudice, believing that some people are more valuable than others. We tell jokes or stories that demean a group because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. For a while, it feels good to feel superior. But over time our choice of prejudice hardens us. In refusing respect for any part of humanity we reduce our ability to love the people we want to love.
Every time we choose selfishness or prejudice Jesus is at our side saying, “How’s that working out for you? Is it making you happy? Is it leading to life? If not, it might be time for a change.” God sets before us life and death, water and fire. The call of the scriptures today is to choose life instead of death, to put our hand in the water not the fire. If the choices we are making are not working, it is time to make another choice.