Sunday, March 20, 2011

11-02-13: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 15:15-20 / Psalm 119 / 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 / Matthew 5:17-37
Today’s gospel brings me back to the 1970s when then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy Magazine interview that he had committed adultery –” in his heart,” as the gospel says - because he had looked on women with lust. Carter went on to win the presidency, proving the point that thinking and doing remain two very different things in the minds of most people. Gary Hart, on the other hand, acted on those same feelings in 1988 and lost his chance for the presidency. And just last year, well-known Miami priest, Father Albert Cutié, was photographed on the beach kissing his girlfriend. After the pictures appeared in the news, he was immediately suspended by his bishop. He has since become an Anglican, married his girlfriend, and become a father. I’m sure Father Cutié was not unique among priests in the desires of his heart; his actions, however, and not his unexpressed desires, are what incurred the drastic consequences.

We’re enticed by scandal. It’s a juicy and complicated thing. Scandal simultaneously produces two reactions in the onlooker: shock and relief. Shock that someone acted on a forbidden desire; relief that that someone wasn’t me. The danger of scandal, though, as the gospel implies today, is that it deludes us into thinking that the desires that led to the act that caused the scandal are somehow so outlandish or perverse that they are not part of our “normal” human experience. The gospel points out that just the opposite is true: those desires are all too human, we all possess them to one degree or another, whether or not we choose to act on them.

Did Jesus, as a human being, experience these feelings and desires as well? Did he know anger? Was he sexually attracted to anyone? Those questions in themselves have caused not a little scandal over time. Jesus fashioned a whip out of rope and chased the merchants from the Temple. Angry, or just making a dramatic point? When Jesus sat and talked with the Samaritan woman at the well (just the two of them), forbidden on a number of levels, you don’t think people talked? Truth is: we’ll never know what Jesus’ unspoken desires were, but we do know that he invited scandal in a manner that trumped both anger and sexuality. Today’s gospel is proof of just that.

Scholars debate whether Jesus really said the words recorded in today’s gospel, but I would suspect he did since they are so radical it’s hard to believe the evangelist would have invented them. Jesus claims he has come to fulfill rather than abolish the law. In this admission he reveals what he was accused of – breaking the law. And, despite revisionist attempts, can anyone who reads the gospels not conclude that Jesus did, in fact, break the law on several occasions - and not only “in his heart.” Of course, we admire the fact that he chose to heal on the Sabbath when the law forbade it; and that he and his disciples did not observe the law regarding ritual washings and the like. But nothing would have scandalized his hearers more than the commission of blasphemy which we witness in today’s gospel. When Jesus announces: “You have heard it said that,” he is actually saying: God told you this, but I tell you… Jesus is taking the place of God Himself. Jesus makes himself into the Divine Lawgiver. In this he is committing blasphemy in the most egregious way imaginable to a first century Jew. Whether you believe Jesus to be God or not is to miss the point, for none of his hearers would have understood Jesus to be God in the way we do. All would have recognized that he was, at the very least, playing with blasphemy; all would have been profoundly scandalized.

Jesus invites scandal. In so doing he robs scandal of its power to persuade us to suppress rather than face our innermost feelings. Admitting that you have uncomfortable or unattractive feelings is the first step in mastering them; denying those feelings only gives them more power. Scandal always tempts us to whitewash the truth, as if that will ever free us from the burden of uncomfortable desires. Sort of like trying to eliminate racism by rewriting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn without using the “N” word.

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