Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading from Sirach God tells us that we can choose between fire and water, death and life and that God is watching us. God’s eyes are on us and knows our every action. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells those gathered that he wasn’t sent to abolish the law but to fulfill it. But then he tells the scribes and the pharisees that their faith isn’t deep enough. It’s not enough not to kill someone, you must not get angry. It’s not enough not to commit adultery, you must not look lustfully on someone. If you do, you’re as guilty as a murderer and an adulteress.
Several years ago I cared for a patient in her 40s who was dying of breast cancer. Her 16 year old daughter, a devout Christian, told me that she felt horribly guilty. She explained that she wanted to pray for her mother to be cured of her cancer but that meant that her mother would stay here and be deprived of Heaven, at least for a generation. The teenager felt that she was being selfish for wanting her mother to live. When I attempted to explain that there’s nothing selfish about praying for a cure and that feelings and desires aren’t sinful she responded by pointing to this Gospel reading. Fortunately the discussion didn’t end there and I was able to convince her that praying for a cure wouldn’t make God angry, but it did get me to think harder about this Gospel.
At first blush Jesus sets the bar high for us. Not only is murder a sin, so is anger. Not only is adultery a sin, so is lust.
In previous years I’ve suggested that Jesus used hyperbole as way of pointing out that we are in need of God’s infinite mercy for Salvation, that we can’t say “I’ve never committed murder or adultery so God and I are good.” I suspect at least partly Jesus’ words were meant for the proud and haughty pharisees and scribes. I still believe that, but today I’d like to take another step in understanding these readings.
In our first reading we are instructed to keep God’s commandments and recognize that we choose between life and death. But I stumbled on a line that I had previously overlooked: “[God] understands [everyone’s] deeds.” Today I’ll claim that God does understand our deeds in ways that we don’t often fully understand.
As humans we often witness others’ deeds. We live much of our lives on camera (look around next time you’re in a store) and our social media will follow us forever. But God not only sees our deeds done in public and in private, but also our deepest desires. God sees when we perform simple acts of kindness outside of the spotlight and act generously toward someone who cannot repay us.
And yes, God recognizes when we choose compassion over anger (someone steals our parking space and we suspect they are responding to an emergency) and love over lust (we actually do look into the other persons’ eyes instead of other body parts).
But more than that God recognizes our highest desires and our determination to do better next time. Last month we awoke to the news that the basketball star Kobe Bryant and his 13 year old daughter Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash. Many of us remember well that in the summer of 2003 Kobe was accused of rape. An employee of the hotel where he was staying accused him and his defense was that they had consensual sex. His defense was that a woman knocked on his door and said: “We’ve never met but I’m here to have sex with you” and his response was “OK.” He was never prosecuted and he settled out of court with her.
While some people will always see Kobe’s life through this lens, I have to say I’m impressed with how he lived his life after this incident. At the time he was married and had an infant daughter. In the years after this he and his wife went on to have three more daughters and he became a loving and doting father. Oftentimes well meaning people mistakenly thought he missed having a son that he could pass on the torch of basketball. But Kobe recognized in Gianna and his other daughters that he did pass the torch to them. Kobe and Gianna were on that helicopter because of his work with the Mamba Academy, a place he founded to teach sports to children.
I don’t have God’s insight into Kobe’s heart and I have limited insight into his deeds but I hope that looking into the eyes of his wife and daughters taught him to do better than that night in the hotel. I hope that he worked to ensure that none of the women in his life fell victim to the predator that he was in 2003.
Like the 16 year old girl I spoke about, it’s easy to read today’s Gospel in fear, thinking that God lies in wait for our thoughts and feelings that spring up without warning. But I suggest that God looks on us with a judgement tempered with mercy. If God knows our deeds then God also knows our desire to transform anger to compassion and lust to love.
Finally, anger and lust aren’t sins. If Jesus was like us in all things but sin, we need to see that Matthew 21:12-13 shows Jesus overturning tables near the Temple. His anger was obvious and obviously not sinful. As for lust, let me say that the line between lust and love is fuzzy. Think about the first time you saw the person you married. Speaking for myself, my first reaction wasn’t love because that would come later (and last longer). I found her attractive and wanted to know more about her. As our relationship developed I found our first kiss was terrific but not enough. Only our marriage fulfilled my desire for her. Does God look on our desire as lust? I hope not. But I think our sexual attraction is divine and God cheers our intimacy: physical, emotional, and spiritual.