Friday in the First Week of Lent: Ezekiel 18:21-28, Matthew 5:20-26.
Today’s readings are very much concerned with what is central to a person, what is in their core, as opposed to the actions they take on the surface. First from the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel and then from the mouth of the Lord Himself, we hear how God wants a relationship with authentically upright and loving people.
Ezekiel writes in a particularly difficult time for the Jewish nation, in between the multiple sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, when the Jews were forcibly exiled in waves. They must have been wondering what they did to deserve this, and he spends a section of Chapter 18, just prior to today’s reading, adjusting the common notion of being punished by God for your own father’s sins. God speaks through Ezekiel: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (Ez 18:4).
Today’s reading is a continuation of this theme of personal responsibility for one’s sins, and it reflects back for the listener some truths about God Himself. We hear that God welcomes the repentant person: “If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” It is God’s great message of hope that anyone can live in the light, united with Him if he or she repents and lives according to His statutes. One’s past does not matter as much as the state of one’s heart and soul in the present.
Ezekiel affirms the opposite, that an otherwise virtuous person will die if he or she turns to wickedness. This is undoubtedly less-than-good news, especially for people who might believe their final judgment is weighed “in the balance.” God states unequivocally that it’s not an average of one’s lifetime of goodness/wickedness: “None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered, because he has broken faith and committed sin; because of this, he shall die.”
While this may not seem fair to those who subscribe to the “I mostly do things right” camp of salvation, God is telling us that he wants us to be authentically converted to Him. He points out that if we’ve turned away from Him and embrace wickedness, we have taken ourselves out of the light, we have accepted death over life. “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.” It is our action of turning away that has, in effect, killed us.
In Matthew’s gospel reading, Jesus elaborates on God’s desire to have us turn to him in heart and soul, with the very core of our being. He begins by doubling down on adherence to the law: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.” These fastidious practitioners of Jewish law — who could hope to be more righteous than them? To clarify what he means, Jesus says that while the law forbids murder, “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”
And so we get to the meat of the matter. It’s not just adherence to the outward details of the law, but adherence to the spirit of the law as well that makes one righteous. Jesus is pointing out that being angry with someone carries the same intent as murder. Our anger puts us in a position of opposing that person to such an extent that we wish to enact some type of violence — a verbal insult, public scorn, physical violence, etc. Each of these reflects an attitude of hate, not love, where we no longer consider that person a brother or sister but an enemy or an opponent. In this state of anger, we no longer abide by the spirit of the law. Murder is an extreme physical manifestation of the same spiritual low point.
His next example is similar. Jewish law made it punishable to be judged by the Sanhedrin for saying the epithet “Raqa” (essentially, “I spit at you”) to someone. Christ counters “whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” This seemingly lesser crime contains within it the same seed of spiritual decay, however. The Greek word that Matthew records Jesus using is Μωρέ, which is also aptly translated as “idiot” (it is the root of the English word “moron”). To call someone a fool or idiot discounts them completely as someone with dignity. More than that, we are denying our brotherhood with them, denying their equal status given to them by God. Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection was accomplished for all of humanity. Through this earth-shattering event, he dwells in each of us. Thus, when we discount another person by calling them fool or idiot, we are discounting Christ as well. A grievous sin, indeed!
Fr. Simeon Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, PhD, states this clearly in his three-volume masterpiece on the gospel of St. Matthew, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: “Who am I to raise myself exaltedly above another and confine that child of God and brother of mine to the category of human debris?” (221). Central to our understanding is that God’s laws for us are outward markers of actions that blossom as a result of a deeply planted spiritual truth. The deeply planted truth is that we are undeservedly loved by the Origin of Love Himself, who wants us to share this heavenly love with all of his creation. Everything stems from that, and the “spirit of the law” is how deeply this spiritual truth orients the core of our being. Our actions (which show whether we adhere to the “letter” of the law) are, in effect, the fruits of either a healthy spirit dwelling with God or an unhealthy spirit obsessed with self and dwelling with the devil.
We must be careful not to simplify and misunderstand Jesus’s message to be “the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law.” Leiva-Merikakis states that the spirit is an “overabundance,” not a different/better thing: “If he is asking his followers to surpass the ‘justice’ of the Pharisees and Doctors of the Law, this ‘surpassing’ is an overabundance that transcends the Law interiorly, that deepens the sense of the Law and traces it back to its very source in the will and Heart of God … [transcending] in the sense of going deeper into it: an interior transcendence.” (216-217).
The last words of Jesus presented in today’s gospel relate an urgency to keep our deeply planted spiritual truth healthy and in front of our own eyes. He says, “leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother.” We must not attempt to offer sacrifice to God, our ultimate display of obedience and honor, if we are dishonoring him by arguing with or discounting another Child of God. We would be hypocrites, pretending to give ourselves to Him while at the same time being in a state of pushing Him away.
Both readings today, therefore, display how God wants us to convert to Him, fully and unreservedly. It’s easy for us to be tempted to sin and be out of grace, covering up that deep spiritual truth God has planted in us. But that’s why Lent is so important, so that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can help us fight temptations and remain close to God, anxious to meet him face-to-face.
As a final note on the passage from St. Matthew’s gospel and a plug for Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’s amazing three-volume set, revel for a moment in his command of language and excellence as a scholar. Below is a more extended excerpt from the first volume of Fire of Mercy on today’s reading.
There is a subtle progression in the verbs used by the Lord in these three verses (5:21-23). Just as his doctrine is proceeding from external to the interior, from the past to the present, and from the general to the particular, so too his language. He first addresses the crowd as such in the plural: “All of you have heard.” He then singles out individuals from the group before him, but somewhat hypothetically: “Whoever might say….” Finally, he completes his approach to the human heart and conscience of the specific person standing before him by using the second person singular: “When thou are taking….” Matthew’s scenography here is full of visual dramatic impact. We can see Jesus first looking over the whole crowd on the mountainside and then gradually beginning to move in on individuals, who are transfixed by the penetrating goodness of his eyes. In the end, the merely curious individual who found himself in the crowd just “to see” can no longer hide, for he feels Jesus address him, and no one else, with his words and glances.
“When you are bringing your gift-offering to the altar.” The material gift offered to God to fulfill a ritual prescription suddenly becomes the symbol of the human heart, which is the real gift the external sacrifice intends in authentic religion. But the pious rite that is to be transacted between the individual and his God cannot be completed if the memory (μνησθῇς) of a rift with one’s brother intervenes. On the way to the altar, the gift must be dropped; not a minute more can pass; reconciliation cannot be left for later. The impediment to sacrifice, and hence to right relationship with God in worship — what had been objectified as ritual impurity before the coming of Christ — now becomes the impediment of the memory, of the consciousness of disharmony with one’s brother. You cannot present your heart to God as a gift-offering on the altar of sacrifice (θυσιαστήριον) if that heart is turned against God’s other children (222-223).