In the bible, mountains are place of encounter with God. Elias has his deep experience of God on mount Horeb. Jesus is transformed on mount Tabor. When the readers of the Gospel of Matthew which was addressed to Jewish Christians heard: “Jesus went up on the mountain”, they spontaneously remembered another great prophet who went up on the mountain: Moses. There he received from God “the two tablets of the covenant law” (Ex 38:18), the ten commandments. Jesus on the mountain also proclaims a new law. “Our ancestors were told… But I say to you…”. Jesus is the new Moses who proclaims a new law. It is not an ethical theory or a vague ideal. Jesus proclaims the law of God, what God wants us to be.
What is the difference between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ? The Mosaic law forbids certain sinful acts, murder, committing adultery, stealing, telling lies. For Jesus to avoid these acts is not enough. He wants us to go deeper, to tackle the root of sin. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander”. (Mt 15,19) The heart is the battleground if we want to become Christlike, “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect”. (Mt 5:48)
In the Gospel today Jesus gives us three examples:
- “You shall not commit murder”. The readiness to use violence starts in the heart. That is where I have to fight it. I harbour thoughts of revenge. I spend endless hours playing video games where I murder countless people and gradually the line between the digital world and the real words begins to blur. I have expressed my hatred for somebody on the social media in a violent language and joined in mobbing the person. Verbal violence prepares the way to physical violence.
- “You shall not commit adultery”. All sexual transgressions begin in the heart and in the head. I indulge in sexual phantasies or even stimulate them by looking at pornography. The fight against sexual abuse of others in all its forms needs first of all the discipline of the eye and of the imagination.
- “You shall not swear falsely.” Let your Yes be a Yes, your No a No. A wonderful definition of authenticity. Political parties spend a lot of money for public relation companies to project a positive image of themselves and hush up any faults and failures. In the long run they lose their credibility and discredit politics in general. The reason Pope Francis enjoys a moral authority worldwide is his authenticity. He speaks openly about his own failures and those of the church. We are often not authentic when we try to show our qualities and successes but hide our defects and failures.
When we take the radical commandments of Jesus seriously, we might say: This is impossible. Who has never lost his temper and told harsh words to a partner, a colleague or his own children? Who has never indulged in erotic phantasies? Who has never told even a small lie? Indeed, we all fall short of the demands of the Gospel. Faced with the sermon on the mountain we realise that we are still all sinners.
How do we react to this bitter truth? There are two extremes to be avoided. One is to water down the challenges of the Gospel to the level of our own mediocracy. This is a strong tendency in society today. Fact and fake news are no longer distinguishable. We allow the advertising industry to bombard us day and night with erotic images. Our language becomes contaminated with hate speech. Faced with our own sinfulness there is another temptation: to give up and despair. When year after year we confess the same sins, we tend to say to ourselves: What’s the point? And give up receiving the sacrament of reconciliation.
Jesus challenges us with a high ideal. But he equally reveals the infinite mercy of God who always forgives and gives us the chance for a new start. To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is not to be holy, but to struggle to become holy. It is a lifelong process.
Fr. Wolfgang Schonecke, MAfr