Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37
Although scrupulosity as a spiritual and moral phenomenon is far less common than it used to be in pre-Vatican II Catholicism, it still occurs and can be extremely distressing to those whose spiritual lives are dominated by it. That gnawing, persisting sense of never truly being able to rid oneself of the burden of one’s sins either because of the conviction that one didn’t make an integral confession, or because of hidden sins that even a rigorous examination of conscience failed to uncover. Unfortunately some of Jesus’ statements in today’s gospel seem likely to exacerbate scrupulosity even further. For, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother: You fool, will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Similarly uncompromising is Jesus’ insistence that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
What are we to make of these untypically severe and uncompromising words of Jesus with regard to sin? Is Jesus not expecting and demanding the impossible from his exacting standards for holiness and righteousness that need to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees? In answer to these questions we can begin by clarifying that Jesus is surely not declaring that there is no fundamental difference between killing someone and being angry with someone. Nor is he suggesting that there is no qualitative difference between an act of adultery and simply looking at a woman lustfully. So just what is he teaching?
Well, one way of understanding Jesus’ exacting demands is that his desire and purpose is not only to forgive individual instances of sin, but also, and far more importantly, to gradually free us from what we might label our state of sin. In other words, individual sins are all expressive of a still deeper state of sin. Expressed still differently, external sins and behaviors are the end of a trajectory originating within the depths of the human heart. And it is to the heart that we must look if we are to effectively deal with this inner state of sin, versus individual sins which are symptomatic of our fundamental estrangement from God and our inability to act in accordance with our true human nature created in God’s image and likeness.
And so although we bring our individual sins to the Sacrament of Penance–and it is essential that we do so–their confession should always be accompanied by a sustained effort to trace their deeper source and roots within the human heart. Describing aspects of this process, Saint Paulinus of Nola explains that just as when paving is dug, we see uncovered from the earth numerous knotted lengths of tree trunks or relics of fallen masonry beneath some grimy mass of stones, so when we are delivered from the preoccupations which drew us outside ourselves, on examining our inmost selves, we find deep in our consciousness the knots of ancient sins…Now the entire darkness of my unhappy state comes to view.
And this is perhaps the point that Jesus is trying to have us see: his saving and recreating grace aims not just at preventing our killing someone or committing adultery, but, ultimately, to be freed and healed from that deeper sinful state that gives rise to these sinful desires, thoughts and actions. So much energy can be spent dealing with and confessing actual individual sins while neglecting to explore and discern their deeper source. Like that hardy dandelion that we think we’ve gotten rid of, only to discover that it quickly reappears, growing up from the deep root that we failed to extract. Nevertheless, when it comes to these deeper sources of sin within us, there is only so much we can do by way of willpower and personal effort. For, as Saint Simeon the New Theologian insists, a man may control passions but he cannot uproot them. He is given the power not to do evil, but not the power not to think of it. Yet real righteousness not only means not doing evil, but also not thinking of it.
And this is ultimately what Jesus is wishing to bring about in us: this total inner freedom and peace from those inner conflicts of which our sins are often the most obvious manifestation and, in the words of Saint Simeon, to not only not do evil, but also no longer think of it. And precisely because this purity and integrity of heart is simply beyond our natural powers, let us join Saint Augustine in praying: But who am I! What am I? Is there any evil I have not committed in my deeds, or, if not in deeds, then in my words; or if not in words, at least by willing it? But you, Lord, are good and merciful, and your right hand plumbed the depths of my death, draining the cesspit of corruption in my heart, so that I ceased to will all that I had been wont to will and now will only do what you will.