L.J. shares a reflection on this Sunday's Gospel reading from St. Matthew.
Jesus invites us to turn our attention away from typical idols and obsessions to center on God and live in a wholly new way.
There are times when emotion overwhelms us. There are times when a strong feeling may even control us. Under such an emotional influence, we tend to do things we regret. Scripture refers to these intense preoccupations as idols. Jesus is adept at pointing out the idols occupying the human heart. In today’s Gospel, he names three: anger, lust, and manipulation through words. In each case, he quotes the Torah and goes deeper. He identifies these idols so we may be aware of how they occupy our hearts and prevent us from being aware of God and of others. These idols can so control us that we serve their interests over God and loving one another. A brief look at each one can illuminate this point.
First, Jesus commands us not only to avoid killing but also to abandon our rage. We are to excise anger from our hearts so that we never insult our neighbor nor let our angry thoughts and feelings escalate to violence and murder. In fact, we are to seek reconciliation with everyone actively. We must always seek to restore relationships and let go of our irate feelings. If we do not, we could get trapped in perceived offense or in hatred for our neighbor. Our everyday expression for this emotional imprisonment is “seeing red.” When we “see red,” we look at the world through our hurts, that is, with a victim mentality. Revenge is a short step from here. Thus, Jesus goes to the source of the problem by rejecting anger as a god and eliminating the illusion that anger should be a central motivation in our actions.
Second, Jesus tells us to stop looking at each other with lust. Again, he is inviting us to go deeper than simply not committing adultery. He aims for the source of adulterous behavior: our hearts where lust can reside. Sexual desire is not on trial here. Rather, I think a good term to use as a substitute for “lust” is objectification. This is the act of treating a person like an object, thus robbing him or her of their inherent dignity as a child of God. Of course, Jesus challenges us to let this idol go, because objectifying another person, whether through sexual exploitation or other means like dehumanizing labor, is evil and deprives us of being aware of God. Casually treating people as objects saturates our culture, though it is graphically represented by pornography. It is yet another false god that we center upon instead of God.
Third, we like to think we are people of our word, but there are times we use our words to get what we want. Speech can be a powerful means of love, but it can also be a powerful means of indifference and hate. Jesus tells us to keep our words simple. “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’” We don’t need to swear on our children’s lives, for instance. Maybe we use such phrases to emphasize how authentic and trustworthy we are being. But, Jesus, might reply, if one is an honest person there is no need to speak like this. An authentic and truthful person says yes or no and means it. If we get too focused on our words, and on communication in general, we can lose sight of God. James Danaher says, “The real problem with swearing oaths is that it, like anger and lust, is something we are quick to identify with and use as a source of energy and motivation.” Therefore, a more fundamental reason for simple speech is that it helps us keep our hearts rooted in God and not in our ego’s desires.
These idols serve to reinforce the ego and, therefore, how we are different or better than other people. Each one serves separation instead of divine love, which unites all things. Anger, objectification, and manipulative or dishonest speech can act as sources of our identity and centers of motivation. As such, they become false gods, which we worship over the real and true God. When we worship them, the Scriptures tell us, we become like them. We become angry, bitter people. We become objectifying and lustful people who are less and less capable of intimate relationships. We become manipulative and may see no problem with lying to get what we want. As Psalm 16 proclaims, “those who choose other gods increase their sorrows.” Only God is our happiness, so we suffer misery when we give our hearts to anything less. This may be the most compelling reason to give up the false gods and worship the God of Jesus Christ.