If You Wish, You Can Keep the Commandments: 6th Sunday OT
I love the Book of Sirach and I love the way this first reading begins with powerful, blunt words. “If you wish, you can keep the commandments; to behave faithfully is within your power.” Well, so much for our excuses. Just like that, God’s Word demands we accept responsibility for every breach of God’s law. We don’t get to excuse ourselves saying things like “I’m only human,” or “everyone makes mistakes.” Those things are both true and they are both irrelevant. If you wish, you can keep the commandments. If you don’t keep the commandments, it isn’t because you had a rough childhood or because the man is keeping you down or because nobody understands how hard it is for you. If you don’t keep the commandments, it’s because you do not wish to. Does that sound harsh and judgmental of your neighbor? But we’re not talking about your neighbor. We’re talking about you. And you know it’s true. I know my excuses are lame, and I know that you know that your excuses are lame. No neighbor-judging here.
Perhaps this strikes you like it strikes me: as convicting, challenging, but also refreshing and invigorating. Refreshing because we instantly recognize it as true, and that’s a breath of fresh air after living among lies. Invigorating because it addresses us as men and women, not as helpless infants. There are so many people lining up to tell you how weak you are! They mean to be comforting or compassionate, maybe, but when you’re told over and over that you’re weak, that actual virtue is unrealistic, that at the end of the day we’re nothing but mammals so why should we be expected to behave any different than on the Discovery Channel?… that self-control is something we’re crazy to expect from anyone,… after all that, it’s invigorating to be addressed as men and women. “To behave faithfully is in your power.” Wait, you’re addressing me as an accountable adult? Huh. Thank you.
Of course, once you accept this, you also have to accept that you’ve fallen short of what you ought to be. But you tell me: would you rather be a man or a woman who sometimes falls short, or a monkey who’s blameless and innocent? Not that you get to decide. We are men and women, and we can keep the commandments if we wish, and to behave faithfully is within our power, whether we have the courage to face it or not.
Jesus has his own word to add about the Law of God. It’s almost as though he spoke these words just for us, knowing that a day would come when his whole radical subversive life and teaching would be reduced to “hey, man, Jesus didn’t judge, so whatever you want to do is cool by me.” When he was quite obviously and quite profoundly concerned with righteousness of life. When he was fierce and unyielding in condemnation of sin. When what he actually said is this: “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and Prophets; I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.” When, far from telling everyone to just relax about the commandments, he actually raised the bar for keeping them! “You’ve heard it said, ‘thou shalt not kill,’ but I say whoever harbors wrath is a murderer.” “You’ve heard it said, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say whoever even looks unchastely is an adulterer at heart.” It’s like he’s demolishing all our favorite excuses. “Hey, there’s no harm in looking… you can window-shop all you want, just don’t touch the merchandise.” Wrong. I award you no points; go directly to confession, do not pass ‘Go.’
[Does anyone under 30 know what ‘do not pass Go’ means?]
Sirach and our Lord himself here in Matthew’s Gospel are tearing up all our excuses and leaving us with something fantastic: responsibility. And for those who have the courage to take up the challenge, for those who are interested in being men and women rather than helpless infants, the Commandments are an incredible gift of God. Men and women who are worthy of the name rejoice in the Commandments. They appreciate them.
They regard God’s Law like a sailor regards a good map. It’s a treasure beyond price! You need that map both to show you how to get where you’re going, and to warn you of the dangers. There are some obvious dangers that you don’t need help with. Sailors don’t really need to be warned not to crash into the big obvious Cliffs of Dover. But there are other dangers that are hidden, not obvious at all, and without a map you’re liable to wreck on them before you realize they’re there.
Navigating life is like that. God’s map, God’s Law, labels some of the obvious dangers… but you probably don’t need to be warned that murder is a bad idea, or that stealing isn’t a good policy. If you do need to be told that, then there you have it, you’ve been told. But where God’s Law matters even more is with the dangers you don’t recognize.
Look around: we’ve got more and more people, and more and more in the Church, who look at some of the moral teachings God has revealed and say, “hmm, that doesn’t look dangerous to me.” Cohabitation doesn’t look dangerous to me. Getting drunk once in a while doesn’t look dangerous to me. Getting surgically sterilized or chemically contracepting doesn’t look dangerous to me. Skipping out on Sunday Mass doesn’t look dangerous to me.
Listen to Sirach continue: “He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given to him.” When we ignore the moral teachings revealed by God we’re like a sailor looking at a map labelled “HIDDEN ROCKS STAY CLEAR” and looking out over the water and thinking, “nah, I don’t see any rocks, full steam ahead!”
Catholic moral teaching is ridiculed everywhere. People think it’s a bunch of silly dogmas with no basis in reality. But they’ve got it backwards. It’s the rejection of Catholic teaching that comes from silly dogmas and denial of reality. No amount of misery, no amount of counter-evidence, no amount of logic can shake their faith in those secular dogmas. You can say, over here we have one way of raising children that is statistically associated with lower addiction rates, lower abuse rates, lower suicide rates, better health and better physical fitness, better education outcomes and lower incarceration rates, more likelihood of financial security, more likelihood of happy marriages, and higher reported levels of overall happiness. And over here we have another way of raising children that is the opposite on every one of those points. Which looks better to you? I don’t know, man, that’s a hard call. Look, I know the family stuff is complicated, and the ideal isn’t always an option, and correlation doesn’t always mean causation and all that, but to actually ridicule the first way? To laugh at it? That’s just plain weird. That’s the work of a blind, irrational dogmatism.
There are all kinds of people lined up to tell you that you’re basically a slightly more intelligent chimpanzee. That you can’t achieve virtue. God himself has put the map right into your hands, and they’ll tell you to toss that outdated, uncool map into the wind. The devil himself will tell you, “you’re too weak, you’re pathetic, you’re less than a man, less than a woman, you can’t help yourself.” But your Father in Heaven doesn’t look at you like that. After all your failings, all your falls, all the sinful and just plain dumb things you’ve ever done, God is an ever-patient Father who will help you to your feet and dust you off. He’s ever so gentle when that’s what you need, but when the time comes he’s firm as a rock that you have to try again, you mustn’t give up, and that you can do this.
“If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.” You have the map, and you have the choice, and you have the strength. And you’ve got the Sacrament of Reconciliation when you need a clean slate. What you don’t have is any more excuses.