Several years ago I heard a woman giving her testimony of how God had healed her from terrible abuse she had suffered from her father from an early age. She said that her family knew nothing but abuse, incest, pornography. She was even sold to other men by her father and yet they went to mass every Sunday as a family. To outsiders, they looked like a perfectly normal family. Obviously the practicing of their faith didn’t mean an awful lot.
Here’s another example: A man I met in a hospital in Ireland told me angrily that it was alright for the Archbishop of Armagh (the head of the Church in Ireland), to pray for priests who had done wrong and to spend the whole day praying for them if he wanted, but that he shouldn’t expect him or anyone else to have to pray for them. In fact how dare he even suggest that anyone else should have to pray for such people.
‘If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes or Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ In modern English we would say, ‘If your faith is only outward signs, like going to mass, and doing religious things, you will never go to heaven.’ You will never get to heaven! That seems pretty strong coming from a God who is supposed to love us so much. God takes us seriously, but He expects us to take him seriously as well. In fact He insists that we do.
This man I mentioned was obviously very angry and felt let down by priests who had done wrong. I don’t blame him for feeling angry, but the point is that he seemed to think that he could quite happily go on practicing his faith, on the outside, so long as he didn’t have to do anything like forgiving, or praying for others who have done wrong, the very things that our faith is all about. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about and it applies to every one of us, priests, Religious, all of us. The Lord is saying, ‘Go deeper than what you can just see. Live from your heart. Pray from the heart. Let your outward practice of faith, like praying at mass and doing novenas etc., be an outward sign of what is already happening on the inside.’
People often say to me that it’s awful not to see young people going to mass and ‘If we could just get them to go.’ I know what they mean and it is sad, but I would also say that I think it would be better that young people didn’t go to mass at all, if it meant they were just doing something on the outside. If it is not something real on the inside, an encounter with God a desire to deepen our relationship with God and to acknowledge and worship God, then it means nothing. I am sure that many of our young people have a sense of needing to find something real. Their faith needs to be something alive, something lived from the heart and they are searching. If their only experience of mass so far has been that it’s just a ‘thing’ that you do, then I don’t blame them at all. They need to discover God themselves and then hopefully the mass will come alive for them and they will see that it is a place where they can encounter the living God, but they won’t go near the mass or anything else if they don’t see it as being something real for us, something that we live from the heart and not just something we ‘do’. It is so important that we live our faith at a deep level. In the same way, my talking to you about God is a waste of time, unless I’m trying to live it myself. This is one reason why Jesus was so angry with the religious professionals of his day. They were experts at doing the ‘required’ thing, the equivalent of going to mass and saying your prayers, but they were only doing it at a surface level. That is why Jesus is saying, ‘Choose life, and choose to live your faith from the heart’.
In the Gospel Jesus speaks in a very shocking way, because He quotes the Law, which was God’s teaching through Moses and He says, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’ He is saying that his teaching is now more important, which to many must have sounded very arrogant. But what Jesus is challenging us to do is to live our faith from the heart and not just in a minimal way. We would not live a relationship with a spouse or a dear friend doing the absolute minimum. If we did it would just dissolve. We try to live it at an ever deeper level, from the heart so that we will grow. God is inviting us to do the same, to respond to him with generous hearts, to live our faith in the fullest way, but this is something that we can only do by our own choice.
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.