6th Sunday in Ordinary Time — The Roots of Sin

This week’s Gospel asks us not just to examine our deeds but our motives. Why do we do what we do?

Henrik Olrik (1830-1890), “The Sermon on the Mount”
Henrik Olrik (1830-1890), “The Sermon on the Mount” (photo: Public Domain)

In the Church’s continued reading of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as the Sunday Gospel, we reach this week two important points: the continuity of Jesus’ teaching with God’s Law as revealed in the Commandments and the deeper question of the roots of sin, explained using examples pertaining to anger, lust, divorce and truth-telling. 

First, the question of continuity. Jesus makes clear today that “not the smallest letter or smallest part of a letter will pass from the law” (Matthew 5:18). Anyone who tries to oppose Jesus’ counsels with the Commandments is on false ground: Jesus did not “come to abolish the Law or the prophets” but to fulfill them. As the New Testament repeatedly affirms, one cannot claim to know, much less love God unless one keeps the Commandments (see, e.g., 1 John 2:4; 5:2-3). 

As we have said over the past two weeks, what Jesus is looking for is not to overturn the Commandments but to deepen and internalize our morality. The Pharisees were content to follow the Commandments because they were commandments, without necessarily making them and the values they enshrined part of their lives. Jesus does not criticize them for keeping the Commandments but for the superficiality that motivated their keeping them. 

The beginning of today’s Gospel is perhaps especially relevant to people of our age. There is an attitude in some quarters that somehow Jesus spoke of “love” and — whatever that means — it has surpassed such “old-fashioned” concepts of morality as the moral code of the Ten Commandments. 

Such views are not unique to our time. When St. Paul spoke of freedom, some Corinthians took that to mean they could do what they wanted as long as it was “loving” and so Paul discovered a “man sleeping with his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1). Sex is often the area where people claim “freedom” from God’s Law, and Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that sexual immorality is not “freedom” (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

But these ideas have returned in our day with a vengeance, as if one can be a faithful Catholic and yet consider various forms of contemporary sexual immorality as compatible with that devout “Catholicism.” It’s a lie. Remember that Jesus says as much today in making clear that those who would try to circumvent or overturn the moral law cannot claim him for backing.

Jesus reaffirms the moral law. But then he deepens it by going into the root causes of sin. He speaks explicitly about violence and murder, lust and adultery, divorce and subsequent sex, and oaths and truth. First, however, let’s take a detour into the Church’s moral theology.

In Catholic moral theology, the Church speaks about seven “capital sins.” They are pride, anger, envy, avarice, sloth, lust and gluttony. The Church calls them “capital” sins not because they deserve the death penalty (although they can be spiritually fatal) but because they are the “heads” — capita — that motivate many other sins. They provide the fuel, the driving motivation, behind many concrete, actual sins we commit. 

Let me illustrate. Avarice is greed. Greed can manifest itself in many kinds of sins, e.g., stealing, defrauding people of wages, cheating people out of what they are owed or deserve, creating an atmosphere that encourages such behavior, etc. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge commits many individual sins, from ignoring his nephew to cheating his worker to overcharging for his grain to refusing to help the poor to being a general louse in people’s lives … but all those sins are powered by one, overarching motive: greed. That’s what we mean by “capital sins.”

It doesn’t have to be greed. Lust is a powerful force that gets people to do and defend all sorts of evil in order to protect their “right to sex.” No small part of the past half century struggle over abortion, with all the deceit, political machinations and money changing behind it, has been fueled by lust — the claim that one can do what one wants sexually and evade responsibility for it. 

Pride, of course, stands at the head of all the capital sins because, in the end, every sin begins and ends in pride. “There can be only one god in this soul, and it ain’t you, God.”

Jesus points to the same problems in today’s Gospel. He tells us the Commandment forbids murder. But murder doesn’t come out of nowhere and rarely is it a fluke of the moment. As Jesus notes, a long chain of anger, hatred, violence, or contempt toward another leads to it. Matthew 5 specifically uses the word raqa (Verse 22) — the only place it appears in the New Testament — and Jesus says calling your brother that is punishable. Raqa means “fool” or “idiot,” in the sense of spitting at someone. Well, if you start there, you seem to be on a good path towards ending in violence … and you in “fiery Gehenna.”

Jesus tells us the Commandment forbids adultery. But adultery doesn’t come out of nowhere. It begins with a lustful look … and another … and another. It begins with a “this date can’t be so bad,” “this place can’t be so bad,” “this kiss can’t be so bad,” “this X …” and, before you know it, you’re in bed.

Jesus admits the Mosaic Law allowed divorce but then he adds to the law: “I say to you …” (v. 32) that divorcing one’s wife to marry another is adultery. Now for Jesus to admit the Law of Moses allowed divorce but he was prescribing otherwise can mean only one of two things: that he has delusions of grandeur or that he is God who can strengthen the Law given to Moses. So, which side do you come down on: deluded Jew or Son of God? Because if the latter, Jesus clearly links what he’s saying about divorce to what he said previously about adultery and the lust that underlies it (vv. 27-30). So one either follows the Commandment or lies about “knowing” Christ.

Jesus tells us the Commandment forbids false witness. But lying does not start on the witness stand after one swears to tell the truth. It starts in all the little “white lies,” equivocations, reservations, half-truths unspoken and half-lies spoken that precede full-blown perjury. Departing from the truth is rarely a momentary vacillation: it’s usually the result of a long lack of acquaintance with it.

The Lord demanded of the Pharisees not just that they follow the Commandments but that they examine and purify their motives for why they followed the Commandments because — as we noted — people can do right things for wrong reasons. 

Good requires wholeness: everything has to be good to be good. Partialness suffices for evil: one thing can be bad to make the whole thing bad. For your body to be healthy, you have to be totally healthy: it would be absurd to say, “I’m really doing okay except for that Stage 4 lung cancer.” Same in the moral life.

So, today’s Gospel asks us not just to examine our deeds but our motives. Why do we do what we do? Sometimes motives can be mixed: a person who has had a sinful habit is likely to be tempted by that sin, because in some sense it’s become “normal” to him. Temptations are not sins, but looking at my temptations to consider what hidden motives drive my behavior can be illuminating.

Is this “perfectionism?” In some sense, yes, but Jesus will address that question in next week’s Gospel, where he gives us the task of “be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Today, we simply are asked to get to know our motives.

As is usually the case with Gospels in which Jesus is teaching something abstract, the choice of available artistic illustrations is limited. Rather than just pick a random depiction of Jesus talking to people, I’ve decided for this week and next to go back into artistic depictions of the Sermon on the Mount.

Two weeks ago, we saw a very commonplace depiction of the Sermon on the Mount by Danish artist Carl Bloch. This week, we can compare it to the work of another Danish artist and approximate contemporary of Bloch’s, Henrik Olrik (1830-1890). Olrik’s “Sermon on the Mount” is part of an altarpiece in St. Matthaeus Church in Copenhagen.

Besides its title, Olrik’s work features mountains in the background beneath similarly colored bluish clouds, whose color variations also suggest light from heaven. (Clouds in the Bible often conceal the Divine Glory — Shekinah — on which human eyes cannot look.) Jesus stands at the center of everything. All eyes are on him; his eyes look rather at the viewer. His raised arms reach into the blue regions of heavenly glory, his right hand reaching up (also a typical preaching gesture — see Bloch’s painting), his left passing along what he has to the crowd.

The crowd is completely gathered around him, hanging on his every word. The groups on the right and the left stand back a bit to give Jesus prominence; likewise, the group behind him stands somewhat lower so that Jesus stands out alone, that group “looking up” to him. The brightest point of light is Christ’s halo, the holiness that is the sun for his followers. Almost all of them look attentively at him but for one man, to his right, looking but with his back turned: will he reject him? 

In some ways, this painting is both classically artistic and classically Protestant: the focus on Jesus alone, the convincing power of his Word preached to others, holiness attributed to him alone, and no particular distinction between Jesus’ Apostles and the rest of his followers. It mirrors many of the same priorities as Bloch’s painting two weeks ago did, but with a different focus and perspective.