Examine Our Choices Sir 15:15-20 • 1 Cor 2:6-10 • Mt 5:17-37

There is left. There is right. There is up. There down. There is white. There is black. There is right. There is wrong ... isn’t there?

Like it or not, in faith there is black and there is white, but too we insist on gray. The more secular the world becomes, the more we live in various shades of gray. This is a dangerous moral climate. The Gospel today calls us to remember that even though there is a color gray on the color chart, there is no such moral color. There is only white and only black.

We are very familiar with and love the Beatitudes. They began what is called the “Sermon on the Mount,” but Beatitudes are only part of the “Sermon on the Mount.” The entire fifth chapter of Matthew makes up the “Sermon on the Mount.” Our passage today is the ending of the Sermon and is intended to give us the rules of following Jesus, the rules of discipleship. Beginning with the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount give words of comfort but by its end it provides marching orders. The lifestyle give to us is clear-cut: There is no room for sin and there is no excuse for sin. None.

The rabbis of Jesus day would distinguish between very serious commandments such as “Do not kill” and minor ones such as if you find something that belongs to someone else, take care of it until it can be given back. We still make distinctions today. We excuse some of sins thinking, “At least I didn’t kill anybody.” Even people not schooled in theology make distinctions. Some lies are bad because they are “boldfaced lies” and some lies don’t matter because they are only “little white lies.” Though we do hear not hear use the terms as often as in the past, we do try to understand the seriousness of our sins by using the terms mortal sin and venial sin.

It is unsettling, but our Gospel stands in stark contrast to this practice. Jesus speaks of “jots” and “tittles.” The “jot” is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the “yodh”). It looks like an apostrophe. A “tittle” is a flourish on a letter such as the top or bottom bar on a printed capital “I.” Jesus said He will not do away with the smallest letter of the law or the smallest part of a letter. If we are going to follow Jesus Christ we must be very clear about His expectation. We are to be good and do right. There are no exceptions. This is hard: Transgressions, no matter how small, are never acceptable.

Our first reading is from Sirach, or “Jesus ben Sirach” or Ben Sira (son of Sirach). Sometimes the book is called “Ecclesiasticus” meaning “little church book.” It could easily be called “God’s Little Instruction Book.” It is part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible and is filled with proverbs. Ben Sira was concerned that the Jewish world and Jewish philosophy and moral teaching was being overwhelmed by Greek teaching and influence. Greek teaching rationalized many things. Jewish teaching sees everything in the context of our relationship with God and, therefore, rationalizes nothing.

Ben Sira says simply, “If you choose you can keep the commandments.” There are no “buts,” “ors” “unlesses,” or any kind of escape clauses.

A sin is always a choice. We make choices every day. Some choices are bad, and they bring with them bad consequences. We should never be shocked or taken by surprise when our bad behavior brings bad consequences. Jesus gives examples that stand even today. If we choose to be legalistic, we may think that we have never broken the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” but Jesus makes clear that He is not interested in legalism. He is interested in right and wrong. We flirt, we cause trouble. We act inappropriately with the opposite sex, we cause trouble. We entertain lewd thoughts, we cause trouble. We look privately at porn on the Internet, we cause trouble.

Most of the times we tell a dirty joke we begin with an apology: “I know I shouldn’t tell this, but ...” As safe as we think a dirty joke may be, it is still always “dirty.”

As we close in on Lent, we have an opportunity to examine our choices. We are either choosing to follow God, or we are not. We are either under society’s influence to rationalize and minimalize, or we have chosen Jesus Christ and His vision that there is right and there is wrong. It is the most important choice we will ever make.

FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.