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Don’t Look Down

The context of Sunday’s Gospel passage is one of the most powerful moments in the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord, in His Sermon, set up a series of contrasts between how thing were under the Law of Moses, with how things are now to be. Just before our “cutting… pericope,” He told the crowd, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” He told them that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. The Law must be taken to a new level, “fulfilled” or “brought to perfection.” He didn’t oppose or undermine Mosaic Law. Mosaic Law was imperfect and needed Christ to elevate it. This is what happened in today’s reading.

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (vv. 21-26).

He set up several more “this but that” contrasts, antitheses, about divorce and remarriage and lust and swearing oaths. Hence, this passage is also important for Christian ethics, how we live concretely the Christian life.

Sunday’s Gospel reading relates just the first of the several contrasts with Old Testament teaching, which is about anger. Christ quoted Exodus 20, the Decalogue, “You shall not kill.” Christ took this upward and outward. “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’….” The original text has the Aramaic word raca for “fool,” which seems to mean something like, “so stupid that you are worthless.”

Remember that in a 1st century Jewish context words and naming had a far greater importance than they do for us. To insult deeply with a word – and the Word, with a word, made creation and all of us in His images – would be tantamount to a curse and offense against the God in Whose likeness the person is made. This explains the rather extreme sounding penalty, in Greek, “the Gehenna of fire.” There are times when the Lord used hyperbole to make a point, such as when He dramatically said to pluck out your eye or chop off your hand. The bottom line is that this type of speech is a matter of our future judgment.

Immediately the question arises: “Does this mean that Christ is saying that we can never be angry?” No. Anger is one of those movements of the soul that is, after Original Sin, involuntary. Where we go astray in anger is when it is for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, and to the wrong extent. When anger devolves into the sort of wrath that aims at hurting other people, and we give consent to that urge, then we have been angry in the wrong way.

One source that is helpful for making our way through the dense Sermon on the Mount – and this part about anger – is St. Augustine of Hippo’s (+430) De sermone Domini in monte libri duo… Concerning the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount in two books. Augustine breaks the entire Sermon down line by line with unparalleled commentary. It’s easily found online.

One of the things that Augustine points out, concerning being angry with one’s brother, is “without cause.” He right away conjoins the next part about calling someone raca with “without cause.” The Doctor of Grace then uses the example of St. Paul, who called the Galatians “brothers” and also called them “fools.”

We had best be wary of anger. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (4:26).

What wise words for members of families.

If we are admonished by the Lord to make peace before going before the altar, then it is hardly to be questioned that we should make peace before going to our slumber at day’s end.

In giving His Sermon on the Mount, and hearkening to Exodus 20 and the giving of the Ten Commandments, Christ reveals Himself as the new Moses, leading people to the new Promised Land for the sake of proper worship.

Matthew 4 ended with great crowds from the entire region, where all the Twelve Tribes would have been but for their scattering. The Lord sees the vast crowds ands heals, exorcises, and teaches. In Exodus 19 Moses came down Mount Sinai and taught them at the foot of the mountain.

When I visited the Holy Land on a Traditional Latin Mass pilgrimage, a transforming event, we visited the place where the Sermon on the Mount was supposed to have taken place. The guide we had made an astute observation about the lay of the land. On one side of the large hill (face it… it was a big hill), there is a kind of shelf. We know that the Lord understood how to be heard by more people in a time without microphones. For example, He entered Peter’s Barque and, at the end of a line, taught people along the shore. So, our guide said that had the people been on the slopes above that shelf, where the Lord stood, there would have been a kind of natural amphitheater. Movies depict the Sermon with the Lord standing on the top of the summit and the people below. However, should the Lord have stood below, preaching upward, more would have heard him more clearly.

Talking about taking the Mosaic Law upward, to another level!

A takeaway from this image of the Lord preaching from below, might be available to the priests who will have to preach.

Fathers, it is good to ask those who are effectively constrained to listen to your insights on Sunday to “punch upward,” that is, “above their weight,” to give them real sustenance, even perhaps things that are hard to chew. Offering them toothless gruel is insulting, like saying “fool.” But in asking them to “punch upward,” don’t ever think you are “above them” except insofar as the height of your ambo or pulpit gives you a boost. Having cited St. Augustine before, I will cite him again, from a sermon later in his life on the anniversary of his consecration (s. 340). Note that when he speaks of his “burden” he uses the word sárcina, which is the immensely heavy equipment backpack of the Roman legionary on the march. See if Augustine does not herein reveal the core of the Epistle from this Sunday’s Mass, 1 Peter 3:8-15:

What, though, is to be dreaded in this office, if not that I may take more pleasure (which is so dangerous) in the honor shown me, than in what bears fruit in your salvation? Let me therefore have the assistance of your prayers, that the one who did not disdain to bear with me may also deign to bear my burden [sárcina] with me. When you pray like that, you are also praying for yourselves. This burden of mine, you see, about which I am now speaking, what else is it, after all, but you? [Haec enim mea sarcina, de qua nunc loquor, quid aliud quam vos estis?] Pray for strength for me, just as I pray that you may not be too heavy.

Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian. [Vobis enim sum episcopus, vobiscum sum Christianus.] The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation…

Make my ministry fruitful… The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be given your backing, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved.

In all the vast and varied activity involved in fulfilling such manifold responsibilities, please give me your help by both your prayers and your obedience.  In this way I will find pleasure not so much in being in charge of you as in being of use to you…

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