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This is my homily that will be delivered on the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (tomorrow), at St. Patrick church in Wentzville, MO. It is based on these readings: Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; I Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37. Incidentally, if you want to view a larger version of the image above, click the image to see a huge (7 Meg.) version of the image. I also encourage you to check out this amazing "virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel ." Beautiful.
I love the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s paintings that cover the walls and ceiling are outstanding. One of the most powerful images is on the wall behind the altar: the Last Judgment scene. It’s a huge fresco covering the entire wall. On the lower left side, people are rising from their graves at the end of time. From there, these resurrected men and women rise upward, to the center of the image, where are found Jesus and Mary. Jesus is acting as judge, and Mary is there interceding for the men and women facing judgment. As we follow the movement in the image, toward the right side of the wall, we see that judgment has been made. The flow of people divides: one group traveling toward the upper-right portion of the wall. Pictured there are saints, some of whom we can easily recognize, such as St. Peter carrying the keys. These people are enjoying Heaven. But if we follow the movement of the other group, downward, to the lower-right portion of the image, we see the men and women being tormented by demons in disturbing, and quite graphic, ways.
It takes a while to appreciate this image. We’re drawn in by the beauty of the artwork, but then we start to think. The Father loves us so much that the he sent his Son to suffer and die for us and gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us and aid us. How is it that this is the same God portrayed in this image as a judge sentencing people to eternal punishment in Hell? This is a question people have always asked, especially when they contemplate readings such as those we’ve heard today.
To understand why nice people like you and I could possibly end up in Hell, we need to understand a bit about God’s love and justice. This is one of the key concepts that, for me, made a lot of pieces in the puzzle of Catholic belief about Hell and God’s love fall into place. So pay attention, and think about what I say next. If you’re like me, understanding this could change your life.
God didn’t need to create us men and women. He did it so that he could love us, and so that we could, in turn, love him. But love can never, by definition, be forced upon someone. If there’s any element of force involved, it’s not love… it’s something sick and disordered.
God’s love is offered to us unconditionally—it’s freely available to all, 24/7, to everyone. But we are not forced to accept it or to love God in return. If we were, it wouldn’t be love. We’d be slaves, or puppets, of God…and that’s below our human dignity. That’s why—and this is the important point—God respects our freedom to choose. He holds out hope that we will choose to love him in return. As our first reading said, “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” We always have a free choice between good and evil, and God respects our choice.
Jesus tells us that to avoid rejecting God we must keep the Law. This “Law” Jesus refers to is the Law given to Moses, especially the Laws expressed in the Ten Commandments. To break the Law is to commit a sin, and if we sin—even in the tiniest way—we will not enter heaven (at least not without a stop in Purgatory). Why? Because, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it, Sin is “the breaking of our bonds with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sin disrupts our ties [our relationship] with the Heavenly Father because it alienates us as sons.” Some mistakenly think that the Jesus Christ made obedience to these Commandments irrelevant and that we’re all assured entrance into Heaven. Not so. Jesus makes this very clear when he says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
What does he mean by “fulfill?” As we go through the Commandments as we prep. for Confession, we might be tempted to feel good about ourselves. “Oh, the 5th Commandment—you shall not kill. Good, I haven’t murdered anyone.” It’s not so simple. When Jesus says he comes to “fulfill” the law, we can say two things: first, that he reveals the true intent of the Law, as only he could. And second, he makes is possible for us, by sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to avoid the breaking the Law.
So, first, he tells the disciples the spirit behind the Law, reveals the full intent of the Law. Jesus goes deeper into the commandments than the Jewish theologians could have. That’s why Jesus says to us, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were experts in the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Law—they were Jewish theologians who no doubt tried to follow the commandments exactly, to the letter. But Jesus says we must be more righteous than they were if we want to enter Heaven.
That’s why we must obey not just the letter of the Law, but the intended spirit of the Law. This is where it gets a little bit scary for us: Jesus gave a few real examples of what he meant: The 5th Commandment says “You shall not kill,” but Jesus says we must interpret that broadly as also prohibiting unjustified anger. He tells us that the 6th commandment, “you shall not commit adultery,” also means we mustn’t look upon another with lustful thoughts. If we think about it, we might realize the rules suddenly seem a bit fuzzy and harder to interpret. How do we know when we’ve sinned?
The answer is a well-formed, spirit-guided conscience, which brings me to the second point about Jesus’ fulfilling the Law. Sheen said it well, that “Conscience … in a person may be likened to a room that is very poorly lighted and in which the Commandments are printed on the wall in small characters. When the Holy Spirit, illumines the conscience, a brilliant light is shed upon those characters. The Holy Spirit restores consciences, so that they accept the guidance of the law of Christ.”
When we hear the words of Jesus, it sounds easy for us to deserve Hell. And perhaps it is. But it’s also easy for us to, thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and the Sacrament of Reconciliation which he established, to be reconciled and forgiven for our sins. We have to receive that forgiveness and desire to get better at avoiding sin, with the help of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t cost us anything, except maybe our pride, to step inside that confessional. What we get from Christ, through the ministry of the priest, is infinitely valuable: being made right with God.
And so we should all pray with the Psalmist, who says “Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statues, that I may exactly observe them. Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.” This is a prayer he will surely answer.