Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the Old Testament Sirach (and once again we exclude our Jewish and Protestant brothers and sisters). His readers are given a stark choice: keep the commandments and choose life or don’t keep the commandments and choose death. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is teaching his disciples. He tells them that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He told them that while they were forbidden to kill, they must not get angry lest they answer in court for their actions. Likewise they were commanded not to commit adultery, but Jesus told them that if they looked at a woman with lust he has already committed adultery in his heart.
From childhood I have been told things about God and about my religion that I just knew couldn’t be true. I grew up in an area that was heavily Christian but where Catholics were a distinct minority. Among my fellow Catholics there were still some who believed that only Catholics went to Heaven. I couldn’t imagine that Heaven would exclude most of my closest friends and neighbors. Later, when I worked full time at a church, I enraged a woman when I suggested that couples who practiced artificial birth control weren’t necessarily condemned for their action. I’ve often shown a decided lack of restraint when told that homosexuals and Democrats trade their salvation for “alternative lifestyles” or the need to be liked.
While I continue to be bothered most by the smugness of these folks I’m also troubled with the idea that salvation is “transactional,” that is, if we do the right things we will “ring the bell” and have earned our way into heaven. It’s never made sense to me that someone who finds faith, joy and love in another faith will pay for all eternity for that sin. Likewise with couples who desire a loving, intimate marriage without additional children, or same sex couples who desire what heterosexual couples take for granted. Finally I can’t believe that membership in a party that supports abortion rights matters more than anything else.
Alas, we’ve spent a good deal of our history giving at least some credence to this. Wealthy people in the Middle Ages sometimes left great wealth to priests who promised to use their power to grant indulgences (ie, cut down on days in purgatory). According to legend this is how the Protestant Reformation began. In 1517 a priest needed to raise money and provided what he claimed were relics (normally bone fragments); he told people that if they donated money they could view the relics and lessen their time in purgatory. A monk in Wittenburg, Germany named Martin Luther became so enraged that he nailed his protests on the church door. And, well, you know the rest of that story.
I say this because if we allow ourselves to slip into this transactional view of salvation, today’s Gospel becomes impossible. When I was a teenager it appeared to tell me that if I “looked with lust” at a girl or got angry, I was toast. I can show you a copy of my high school yearbook as proof that no boy in my school had a shot at salvation. And also, didn’t Jesus regularly get angry, or at least frustrated with the pharisees? Didn’t he overturn tables in the Temple?
So maybe look at this in a different light. God doesn’t “keep score” on our decisions and if salvation were truly transactional that would give us the power to tell God that he owes us for our good decisions.
I believe sexual attraction can be seen as an incredible gift. We are the unique among God’s creatures in the sense that sexual attraction is not guided only by the need to breed but is instead a manifestation of God’s love and generosity. And it is true that this gift allows us to cooperate in God’s giving life but it can also lure us into our gravest sins. We reserve our greatest contempt not for those who murder but those who sexually abuse those in our care.
I suspect that Jesus used the words he did as a way of telling us that our desire for salvation rests with God’s grace and our choice to accept it. When we look at another with lust it doesn’t end our story but recognizes our need for God’s grace to use the gift of sexuality in a way that honors both people. To look with lust exercises power over the other person. And let’s face it: we’re surrounded. Advertisers pose attractive people in provocative poses to sell products that have nothing to do with the model. And I don’t want to appear to blame the victim but teenage boys are regularly expected to leer and joke about attraction lest they be bullied.
And in the years since these readings were first written we’ve recognized the complications found in our relationships with each other. Jesus and his disciples knew nothing of homosexual orientations or people who identify as nonbinary and I believe this makes this Gospel all the more relevant. Because if our call to discipleship moves us from lust to love, it calls us to recognize love in all its manifestations.
It calls us to envision loving relationships not only in terms of what it gives to each of us but what it gives to all of us. I will be the first to celebrate that with age comes wisdom. In my 60s I have an ability I didn’t have as a teenager to look at an attractive woman and not overly obsess over how she looks or what she’s wearing. This has been a long journey but but it’s one I wish for everyone. Our first reading calls us to choose life over death but it doesn’t give a deadline.
The call to love brings with it the call to seek and understand each other. It calls us to recognize that a person’s beauty and attractiveness goes not only deep, but wide. It calls us to see that beauty isn’t simply what gets someone on the cover of a fashion (or pornographic) magazine but that a person’s beauty encompasses their emotional and spiritual health. I love watching elderly couples speak of each other in terms of what makes them beautiful to each other. It’s a love born out of decades of exploring and finding their beauty.
So if we find ourselves “looking with lust” I have two pieces of advice: first, be gentle and patient with yourself. But second, find the beauty that transcends how they look. Trust me, few things in life are more transitory than physical beauty.