6th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula
A comet slams into the earth, causing massive earthquakes, tidal waves, firestorms: the comprehensive collapse of human civilization and the beginning of a new Ice Age. A few, small pockets of humanity manage to survive—those living on mountain ranges and far from the coasts. Each community fights to survive. They must find food, clean water, medical care. There is no law, no church, no military, nothing left to guide the survivors but raw, individual instinct and the will of the strongest among them. Some few still talk about right and wrong, some few still invoke the name of God, or the authority of the Bible, and some even appeal to reason when the more savage choices have to be made. But who is God? What is the Bible? Where is reason? Six billion people have been reduced to a few hundred scattered across the world. The choice is live or die. What I have just described is the plot of one of the very first novels I read as a kid, Lucifer's Hammer, published in 1977. From the moment I opened the cover of this book, I was hooked on Doomsday fiction, apocalyptic literature. Of course, what I described could be the plot of just about every disaster movie made since the 1950's. Hollywood is still making Doomsday movies—2012, The Road, Independence Day—and they've been diligent in producing my favorite Doomsday sub-genre, the Zombie Apocalypse movie! Why do these sorts of stories fascinate us? What is it about the collapse of civilization and the destruction of humanity that appeals to us? Here's a guess: we want to know what might happen if there were no rules, no law, no consequences. Could we be moral without the threat of punishment?
Now, you have to be wondering what zombie movies and novels about comets have to do with the gospel. Besides the fact that Jesus is talking about Judgment Day—who enters the Kingdom and who doesn't—we have in the gospel a lengthy lesson on what it means to be a moral person. Jesus is teaching on the Law: how he has come not to abolish it but to fulfill it. In the longer version of the reading, he says, “. . .until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. . .” He goes on to warn that anyone who breaks the commandments will not enter the Kingdom. However, those who obey the Law will be the greatest in the Kingdom. So, to be a moral person, a person held in high esteem among the hosts of Heaven, you must obey the Law. Sounds straightforward enough. But then Jesus does what he does best. He throws a curve, adding, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” You should understand immediately that the scribes and Pharisees were renowned for their obedience of the Law. But here Jesus tells his disciples that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. Mere compliance is not enough. Something more is required.
In the shorter version of the reading, we have three examples of how our righteousness can surpass the righteousness of mere compliance. Jesus uses murder, adultery, and oath-breaking to illustrate his point. Under the Law, killing another person, sex with someone who isn't your spouse, and swearing a false oath are all grave sins. The Law outlaws these behaviors. The act of murder, the act of adultery, the act of swearing a false oath are all forbidden. Since Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, he teaches the disciples that these behaviors remain sinful. However, good behavior does not produce surpassing righteousness. Something more is required. He says, “You have heard it said, 'You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery; Do not take a false oath.' But I say to you, do not be angry; do not lust after another' and let your 'yes' mean yes and your 'no' mean no.” Surpassing righteousness springs from a clean heart as well as clean hands, from both a pure spirit and a pure body. You refrain from murdering your neighbors. . .but do you refrain from hating them? You refrain from committing adultery. . .but do you refrain from lust? You refrain from swearing false oaths. . .but is your word alone honorable? Actions are born from intentions. And pure intent is the mother of righteousness.
For all that he teaches us about living in right relationship with God, Jesus has nothing at all to say about living through the Coming Zombie Apocalypse. He really doesn't say much about Global Warming—er, I mean “climate change”—or nuclear annihilation, or the devastation of a global virus outbreak. All he has to say about the End Times is that on the Day of Judgment, the goats and sheep will be divided. The goats will be tossed into the fire, the sheep raised up to heaven. If you want to be among the sheep, live now in surpassing righteousness. If you prefer to be a goat, then revel in hatred, anger, lust, adultery; worship false gods, refuse to help those in need; basically, believe and behave as though the only thing that matters to you is your survival. Given the choice to live or die, what won't you do? In the movie, The Road, a man and his son travel the roads of an unnamed country after the world has been more or less destroyed. There are no animals, very little clean water, no plant life; nothing resembling the rule of law except the sort of rule that comes from the barrel of a gun. The man and the boy spend their time scrounging for canned food, bottled water, and sleeping under pieces of plastic. When they are awake, they have to run and hide from gangs of roving cannibals. Along the way, the man tries to teach the boy about hope. The boy listens and learns. But every time their lives are threatened, the man abandons hope and resorts to surviving by any means necessary. The boy notices the contradiction and wonders if his father genuinely nurtures any hope at all. This movie (and the novel it's based on) provide us with an opportunity to see what happens when the power of the law to rule humanity is destroyed. How do we behave when there is no law, no church, no military, nothing to guide us, nothing to reward or punish us? If our movies and novels are any indication of what most of us would do, then we are in deep trouble. A life of surpassing righteousness can never be about mere survival; it is a life lived in constant hope.
And hope—like faith and love—is a virtue, a good habit. If hope is to be a constant in your life, a rock-solid, bottom-line reality, then your answer to God's call to holiness is going to have to be Yes. Let that “Yes” mean yes. If your “Yes” means “Maybe,” or “When I can,” or “If it's convenient at the moment,” or “When things are good,” then your “Yes” means No and that is from the Evil One. Hope is a choice. Sirach says, “If you choose you can keep the commandments. . .if you trust in God. . .He has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose. . .Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Choose to listen and obey. Choose to trust and love. Choose life and goodness. Immense is the wisdom of the Lord! Choose His surpassing righteousness as your own and live in constant hope. Let your “Yes” to His invitation mean Yes. In the face of unemployment, sickness, a death in the family, comets, zombies, nuclear annihilation, whatever comes, let your “Yes” mean yes. Whether you are preparing your taxes, walking on the beach, dating your high school sweetheart, or trying to save your marriage, let your “Yes” to God's righteousness mean Yes. Anything else is from Evil One.
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