“If you choose you can keep the commandments” (Sirach: 15:15). How might we understand this opening line from today’s Old Testament reading? The most obvious way is to see the commandments as a set of laws that God hands down. Keeping the commandments is a form of obedience to God. To be law-abiding means knowing and comprehending the commandments. It also means accepting the power and wisdom of the commandments, with the hope of gaining a reward from God.
But what if the emphasis is put on the beginning three words? If you choose. Then the focus shifts from obedience to free will. On their own God’s commandments cannot save us. The only real way to keep a commandment is to be in a steady, active state of choosing it—over and over again, within the particulars of your life. The commandments may teach us how to love one another, but on their own they cannot make us love one another. Separated from free will, love cannot exist.
If you choose is the message that resonates in today’s Gospel from Matthew. Jesus demonstrates that God cares not merely for justice but for goodness. The law can take us merely to the threshold of righteousness. However, if we choose to follow Christ, we can enter a sphere of radical love, where we go beyond the threshold of the law and find a higher way of living and a higher form of obedience, an interior obedience that forms our character and unlocks the divinity within us. By following Christ, charity becomes a way of being, made out of an ongoing free decision to put the needs of others over our own.
In his book on the Holy Spirit, Archbishop Luis Martinez notes that there are two meanings to the word faith. He writes:
Faith signifies the acquiescence that we give to a truth on the authority
of the one who teaches it to us, and it also denotes the fidelity and the
sincerity with which we treat others. This is the faith that puts the last touch
to our relationship with others: to desire to do them good, to pour out
our gifts into their hands and into their hearts, to be gentle with them
and loyal besides. (The Sanctifier, p. 126).
This is how Christ keeps faith with his Father and with us, and if we find his standards dauntingly high, we have to remember that he is present to help us. As we receive the Eucharist, let’s ask Christ to carry us over the threshold of righteousness and into His ways of radical love.