These last several Sundays before Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ Great Sermon – a sermon full of strong and somewhat challenging words, which is what they were meant to do. Jesus’ message to his disciples was meant to challenge – and continues to challenge – not just you and me and anyone else who wants to be Jesus’ disciple, but a whole way of life, that of his 1st-century contemporaries, and our entire way of life today. In doing so, Jesus invites us also to push ahead to become who we are being invited to be.
Jesus challenges our common human tendency to do the minimum, to take the short cut, to focus on other people’s faults rather than our own. We are all familiar with the phenomenon known as “whataboutism” in contemporary politics, whereby one deflects criticism by changing the subject and pointing to someone else’s failings. In the new kingdom, to which Jesus is inviting us, all such refusal to take responsibility is ruled out from the start. We are what we do; from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. What I do says something significant about who I am, about what is going on in my heart. In both the Old and the New Testaments, the “heart” is understood to refer to the whole of the deepest part of of one’s humanity. Jesus is challenging us to confront the powerful subtlety of sin within us and our seemingly infinite capacity to makes excuses to do the minimum and take the shortcut to moral mediocrity.
Jesus in today’s Gospel is telling all of us that, if we want to respond effectively to his challenge to full Christian commitment, then we have to look at ourselves – at all our feelings and emotions and experiences – in the light of what God has made us for and how he expects us to get there, and then stretch ourselves by accepting the Lord’s invitation to full membership in the community of his disciples, who care for and support one another to be – not just what we can be on our own - but what God himself is enabling us to become.
Lent, which begins this Wednesday, challenges us to focus on what is important – to put our preoccupation with wealth and other such things back in some perspective. We do this all the time in our ordinary activities – or at least we try to if we are reasonably sane and focused. In our ordinary activities, we readily distinguish what is of ultimate importance, what is of long-term value, from what is a short-term sideshow. Jesus wants us to do the same with what is most important.
We live right now in a time and place particularly polarized and fragmented by judgment and finger-pointing, pretty much on all sides and from all ideological directions. Our society supposedly prides itself on its tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion, and our Church proclaims radical mercy. But what we actually see and hear and experience everywhere around us are angry judgments and vindictive condemnations. There may be no medium more designed for focusing on the splinters in other people’s eyes than Twitter. But even people who have never ever sent a single hateful tweet have been affected and corrupted by our ambient culture of self-righteous anger and condemnation, a culture which encourages us to minimize, if not ignore, our own shortcomings and failings.
Judgments are, of course, inevitable in life. We cannot even the cross the street without making a judgment (hopefully an accurate one) about what the traffic is doing! But how we judge is critical, how rapidly we judge is critical, how well informed we are when we judge is critical, and ultimately how in touch we are with what is going on inside ourselves when we judge is absolutely critical. How often have our judgments been filtered through our personal, social, or ideological biases, those wooden beams in our own eyes?
Perhaps one Lenten practice especially worth cultivating at this time might be an intentional focus precisely on how we jump to judgment on every issue (increasingly along tribal politically partisan lines) and devote ourselves to having a new heart, the heart of a disciple.
Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, February 27, 2022.
(Photo: High Altar, designed by Stanford White, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York)