Matthew 5:17-37
 An Encounter With Love
 by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Jesus said to his disciples: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.  Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.  Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.  But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife – unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.  But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.  Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,' and your 'No’ mean ‘No.’  Anything more is from the evil one.” 

Healthy personal relationships with people — a mother or father, a friend, a child — are part of our lives as social beings. Establishing such a relationship requires 1) a personal encounter and 2) a response of love and affection. So how can we form a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ? How is it possible to encounter someone we cannot see? And without an encounter, how can we love?

Our initial encounter with Christ must come from hearing. Somebody needs to tell us about Christ as Lord and Savior and we must believe what we hear. This is the beginning of faith. In the Book of Hebrews we read: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1). Christ, “the way, the truth and the life,” is the reason for our hope in everlasting life in Him. The First Vatican Council further defines faith with scholastic precision: Faith is that act by which “we believe to be true what He has revealed, not because we perceive its intrinsic truth by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, who makes the revelation and can neither deceive nor be deceived.”

Hence our encounter with Christ is built on the bedrock of faith in divine revelation as we receive it through the teaching church. Encountering Christ in faith by meditating on the Gospels is crucial to establishing our personal relationship with Him. We are of course free to use our imagination and affections, continuously purified by efforts to avoid errors, to enter into the divine narrative we receive in the Scriptures. But that is not enough. Sceptics could argue that a similar “personal relationship” might be found by meditatively reading the biography of a famous person or the writings of a philosopher. They have a point, at least from a natural psychological point of view. But what the secular encounter lacks is the reality of God’s grace animating our souls as we read. The mysterious awareness of God’s presence, even without an emotional response, helps us begin to understand the action of God’s grace upon us.

There are many opportunities for placing ourselves in the presence of God. Whenever we prayerfully and consciously make the sign of the cross, for example, we come in touch, however dimly, with the divine presence and even His love. It is important to know that God acts before we do. St. John writes, “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). When we encounter this truth a response is unavoidable — but to remain in a personal relationship with Christ the response must be with one of love and affection.

St. Augustine poignantly expresses his own response to the searching love of God, a prayer we can borrow for holy Communion: “Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new. Too late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you! In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The things you have made kept me from you — the things which would have no being unless they existed in you! You have called, you have cried, and you have pierced my deafness. You have radiated forth, you have shined out brightly, and you have dispelled my blindness. You have sent forth your fragrance, and I have breathed it in, and I long for you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you. You have touched me, and I ardently desire your peace” (Confessions, X, 27, 38).

When we love a mother, we do our best to please her. So it is with Christ. After the Resurrection, Christ teaches: “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him” (Jn 14:21). This is the key to understanding this Sunday’s Gospel where Christ reveals that He did not “come to abolish the law or the prophets” but He has “come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He is teaching us how to love and providing the recipe for true moral transformation. The law, in Christ, must become part of us and define who we are. It is not enough to forgo murder; we must renounce interior hatred. It is not enough to avoid the act of adultery. We must renounce the interior lust that leads to acts of sexual impurity. And so it goes for all of the Ten Commandments. To love others is to love Christ. Acts of Christian charity for others in good morality indeed completes our “personal relationship” with Him.

To sum up, the path to a “personal relationship” with Christ is 1) faith 2) based on our hope for salvation, and 3) expressed in love for God and neighbor. The formula is familiar and accessible to the most simple of souls: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

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