It is, of course, very much to the credit of the United States of America that we are free to express criticism of our government and also engage in the process of purifying and improving it. We’ve been seeing that priceless right exercised recently in the popular demonstrations that took place from coast to coast regarding an executive order of our new president.
But many Americans today, myself included, feel that we are living in a time when words, especially those spoken by some of our highest leaders, cannot be assumed to be true and that we citizens have been reduced to mere spectators at a game.
When Jesus speaks as he does in today’s Gospel excerpt, he is addressing, not only individuals and churches, but society and government and business and the military and the professions and systems of every conceivable kind. Therefore, phrases and terms like “secular vs. spiritual” and “separation of church and state” and “business is business” absolutely cannot be used to mean that there are spheres of human activity that are not ultimately accountable to God, That is an impossibility.
Jesus’ teaching on the matter is simple, clear, and incontrovertible. I paraphrase him:
STOP THE PRETENSE! Get to the heart of the matter and deal with it honestly, without sham or deceit. Get to the root of your own behavior first and don’t deny what you see there. Address it truthfully, humbly, bravely.
Everyone knows that murder is wrong. Well, don’t pride yourself on the fact that you’ve never gone that far; instead, recognize the sullen anger, the prejudice, the vindictiveness that may be in your heart that are every bit as related to murder as a glass of water is to a flood.
You may not have committed adultery, we can hear Jesus saying; but you men, take a good look at the way you regard women, whose names you may or may not know, whom you have made dehumanized objects of selfish pleasure. Look at that one woman closest to you whom you do not really respect as your equal, your loving partner.
And you who are called to trial, Jesus says: stop hiding your guilt behind the clever subterfuges and techniques that an imperfect system provides for you, and instead say and do what you and your God know to be true.
Our modern age – no different in essence, I suppose, from any other age – not only makes evil appear attractive, but makes it appear good. To that, Jesus reacts emphatically and insists that we, his baptized followers, are to be the Gold Standard, radiating without compromise truth and justice and love, no matter the consequences.
I remember fondly a retreat I gave in north Jersey a few years ago to 32 men from a wide variety of backgrounds — mostly businessmen, along with a handful of doctors and lawyers and others. They themselves had organized the retreat, seeing it as an opportunity to compare their present lifestyle with the perfect model that Jesus himself offers and is. As so many of them put it to me in private, they were there to move closer to him and live his way more completely. We are all expected to do that always, and to accelerate the process especially at our Sunday Eucharist.
This is not the first time we Americans have experienced sharp divisions among ourselves. We survived those crises and we learned much from them. It seems to me that this is another opportunity for us to contribute honesty, integrity, justice and charity to our own small circles —and therefore to the vast circle of our national life.