I don’t like to admit it, but I am not a fan of the temporary rector at my church. As such, I have been avoiding going to Mass for a number of months, knowing that I can always come back once he is permanently replaced. However, I did find myself at Mass this past Sunday, and as always, God spoke to me in a way that made plain why I was supposed to be there.
We were reading from the gospel according to Matthew:
27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
Of course, having been raised Catholic, I grew up with a very real and tangible fear of Hell. Similarly to much of my Catholic upbringing, this was a verse that was brought to me at a rather young and impressionable age. The purpose for introducing me to this text was to teach a rather simple message: “If you feel like you might be tempted to sin, you need to stop yourself.” But look at the methods espoused here — plucking out one’s eye, cutting off one’s hand, and then there’s that strange word: “adultery”. Apparently, in teaching the basics of “Don’t sin”, little time was spent exploring the question of why these methods were put forward as successful strategies to avoid temptation.
We know, of course, that people take the Bible literally or figuratively in widely varying degrees. We also understand that we feel very separated from the society of Biblical times, and often have a difficult time understanding their perspectives on what was happening around them and how they dealt with it. If you’re like me, you have heard stories of societies where thieves were punished by having their hands cut off, though whether or not it was true was debatable. But it might seem at least somewhat reasonable that the followers of Jesus were literally being counseled to cut off their hands if they were tools of evil deeds.
Last Sunday, that was the question being posed from the pulpit: is that really what’s happening in this Gospel verse? Couldn’t it also be possible that Jesus used such strong language simple to capture people’s attention long enough to get to the real message? I have to say, I hadn’t spent much time pondering that possibility. Not that I take everything in the Bible literally, but I think often we see Jesus as such a serious figure — more God, less man — that it seems inconceivable that He might resort to some strange tactics in order to make that connection with the people around him. I mean, honestly, the disciples were all sinners, yes? Did any of them have missing body parts that they willingly removed in order to avoid sin and temptation? Not likely. It’s the old argument of following the letter of the law versus the spirit — cutting off one’s hand won’t really help avoid sin, but making deep and lasting changes in our hearts and minds certainly will. And that was the point.
Which made me wonder: what does this say about the presence of adultery in the midst of all this? Certainly, I’ve always thought that the idea of committing adultery simply by looking at someone with lust in one’s heart set us all up for failure in terms of faithfulness in relationships. And maybe that’s really the point? Even though we are so quick to judge ourselves and punish ourselves for slights against our romantic partners — and of course we judge our partners similarly — maybe the point Jesus was trying to make was that it really isn’t quite so black-and-white. Loving another person isn’t easy. People are complicated; situations are complicated. We think it’s easy to do “the right thing”, but if it were, wouldn’t we all just easily do it? Emotions change and shift over time, just as much as the nature of a relationship itself might change.
Love is a choice. Sometimes it’s a choice you make on a daily basis. And sometimes in our struggle to do “the right thing”, we forget about the most important part of all of it, which is to choose to love someone. Over time, society has done its best to impose restrictions and control on something that really only happens between the people who love each other. And time and time again, we accept those rules as gospel, so to speak, when the only Gospel that counts is God’s commandment to love one another. More than that, He challenges us to love each other as He loves us.
He loves us unconditionally.
Can you say the same? Can any of us? Is it even possible? I don’t really know. But I know that I try, and the only ones who know that are the people I love as unconditionally as I can. Edicts and rules and laws have no place in those relationships; only love does. If I let myself get too caught up in the day-to-day nonsense and let that chip away at the love I am trying to share, it’s no different than cutting off my hand to avoid sin.
On a very, very basic level, sin is the antithesis of love. That’s why Hell has sometimes been defined as the one place where love doesn’t exist. When rules and laws end up keeping us from truly loving people, doesn’t that then mean that they end up causing us to sin rather than preventing us from sinning? Not a simple question to ask, because of course there isn’t a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all kind of answer. That’s why the new commandment was simple: love.
I give a new commandment to you: ‘Love one another; just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.’