All of us know people of good character, people who have a reputation of being decent, respectful of others, law-abiders who lead good lives, or so they appear. We also know of some who, even though they enjoy a good reputation, turn out to be a whole lot less than we thought, some of them going on to bring terrible hurt to others and inflict real damage upon them. As the old saying goes, appearances are deceiving. Looking good does not mean that our hearts are filled with goodness.
The scribes and Pharisees had a certain kind of goodness, even holiness. Jesus did not condemn them for the goodness they sought, rather He condemned them for what they did not have in their hearts. They had no depth. They governed their thoughts and actions by their external observance of the Jewish laws and how they appeared in the eyes of others. The love of God and the love of others that flows from our love of God never filled their inner selves, never filled their hearts where they really lived. Sure, they did not murder others, but they allowed themselves to hate. Sure, they did not commit adultery, but they allowed themselves to regard women merely as objects for the pleasure of males. Wives were merely useful. That attitude adulterates genuine love and demeans women.
Lest we haughtily consider ourselves to be so much better than they were, we should take a look at ourselves. Do we govern our actions on the basis of what others will think of us? That’s superficial; it governs us on the basis of appearances. That motivation is external, not internal. It’s shallow and doesn’t come from deep down within us — where we really live.
Jesus wants His Holy Spirit to dwell deep within us, in our hearts and souls. It’s from there that our actions should begin. It’s from there that our motives are formed, motives formed in generosity and in the unlimited love and care of God, for ourselves, and for others.
To be sure, most of us do not commit physical adultery, but who among us has not had lust in their hearts and looked with lust on others? Isn’t that a sort of divorce? Doesn’t it divorce us from loving only our wives or husbands? Who among us has not had envy and jealousy over what others have? Lust isn’t something that is limited to sex, but it can lead to a divided heart. Merely observing the Commandments only externally allows our hearts to go into wildness and wantonness.
Few among us have committed perjury while under oath in a court of law. But how many of us have said “yes” when we really didn’t mean it and “no” when we really didn’t mean it? It used to be the case that when a man gave his word, or a woman gave her word, then everyone who knew them could rely on them. Living up to one’s word was a bond, a contract that everyone could take to be faithful and true. Is that true in our day? The scribes and the Pharisees are among us, here today. They did simply walk the face of the earth over 2,000 years ago.
Few among us will commit murder but how many times have we murdered the good name and reputation of others with our idle, gossiping and chatter? How many times have we murdered our relationship with others by hateful thoughts of resentment and revenge in our hearts, or with abusive language and contempt of others? Oh, to be sure, our external actions may be nice and even polite, but that’s not what Jesus really wants from us. He expects more than simple minimums and legal observance of the norms, rules, and laws of living in a social order with others.
On one occasion in another context Jesus was talking with His disciples about this. He said to them: “But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” (Mark 7:20-23) I am not suggesting that laws, rules, and regulations are of no value. They are very valuable. Many people observe laws because they fear the consequences of violating them. If a person thinks about committing a crime he may for a few moments think he can get away with it, but the thought of the punishment he will face if he breaks the law causes him to refrain. Breaking a contract has legal consequences even for those who, lacking self-respect, regard the giving one’s word as of no consequence. Because many lack respect for God and likewise lack self-respect we as a society must have laws. Laws have a good purpose and serve us well.
Jesus, however, is looking for something far deeper than legal observances. He wants us to be motivated by love, to live loving lives, to care and to unselfishly give of ourselves to others and to our Father in heaven. This is a way of living that no law can motivate or impose on us. This way of living puts greater demands on us.
Suppose we lived in a society where everyone strictly observed all of its laws. Everyone would behave well, but would such a world be filled with happiness? Jesus wants more from us. Living in strict observance of laws would be good, but would we be living in a world of love? Would it be a loving and caring world, or would it be simply a world in which nobody broke any laws? Jesus wants the best from us, not just our minimum performances. God gave us a tremendous gift, the gift of freely choosing. This is because love isn’t truly love unless it is freely given – and freely received. After all, a gift isn’t a gift unless and until it is received. God has paid us a tremendous compliment in that He respects our decisions. That is why He never forces our decisions. He offers and then He waits for our response. His love for us is unconditional. His only law is love, a love within us that governs our choices and the actions that flow from our choices.
This is not something new. It is found in God’s Word given to us many centuries before Christ and is expressed in the first reading of today’s Mass, a reading taken from the Old Testament’s Book of Wisdom: If you choose you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him. Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing. The eyes of God see all he has made; he understands man’s every deed.
We all know full well what we do or don’t do. And we all know what others do or don’t do. God, however, is more interested in what He finds in our hearts. Do we simply obey rules, or do we choose to live in love and concern for others? That’s a question for which the answer may only be found deep within our hearts – where we really live.