Conversion Within — 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year A

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our Lenten journey to Easter, is only a week and a half away. The season of Lent is for penance, conversion, and growing closer to our Lord. Jesus comes not only to forgive sinners but to transform us into saints. This year, would you like to become the best person in Christ that you have ever been? If so, then let’s begin to form a plan.

Lots of people give up something during Lent. Some people give up a particular food, like cookies, chocolate, ice cream, candy, potato chips, or pizza. Some people give up something they drink, like coffee, soda pop, or alcoholic beverages. Some people give up a habit, a thing small like spitting, chewing Gum, or biting their nails, or something grave, like smoking, chewing, or vaping. While other people give up desserts, snacks, junk food, fast food, or meals at restaurants. What do all these popular penances have in common? One’s mouth.

Fasting from a particular food or beverage is a fine Christian penance. Unless you’re exempted by age or health, abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays is already a part of our hared Church disciplines. But far more important than the things eat or drink with our mouths are the things that go on within our souls. Jesus once summoned the crowd and said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” When Peter and the disciples asked what he meant by this, Jesus explained: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person.” The small and secret choices we make inside us lead to manifest effects around us.

First, an important point about the things that go on inside us. Thoughts, feelings, imaginings, and memories will often arise in our minds unexpectedly, unsought, and unreflectively. A temptation can be like this; an ugly thought or feeling, an idea or inclination to do something wrong, can come our way without our having willed it. Some people think they’re sinning when this happens. Not so. Remember that a saint is not someone who never experiences temptation, but someone who chooses what’s right and good and loving even when faced with temptation. We only do good or evil when we make a choice of the will; a choice to act or not act, to keep thinking about something or to try to think about something else. I mention all this because people commonly confess unwilled temptations they never consented to as if they we sins. Mere temptations are not sins or failures; they are a crossroads where we can choose the holy path, they are an occasion for us to do Christian battle, they are an opportunity for us to deepen our relationship with Christ.

In today’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us beyond merely external holiness that other people can see to holiness through and through: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus reminds his disciples, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. Do not take a false oath.” But then Jesus goes even further, for instance: “I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa, [blockhead]’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” Murder doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from contempt and hatred of others. As a Christian, you are not allowed to hate people. Scripture insists: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” True, you might enjoy some people more than others. The nose might not find it pleasant to be around the armpits in the Body of Christ even as each member serves the others’ good. If there is anyone you dislike, remember that likes and dislikes are natural, but love—to will the good of another—is a decision, a choice you can always make. If there is anyone you hate or strongly dislike, I urge you to pray for them, since it is impossible to pray for someone and hate them at the same time. Perhaps for this Lent, focus on giving up your criticism of others and choose to focus on the best in everyone.

Jesus continues, “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.’” Why did Adam and Eve put on clothes after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and evil? It’s not because their bodies were shameful, but because each of them realized for the first time that they could be manipulated and exploited by the other, used as a thing rather than loved as a person. This is what lust is, using another person as a thing for my own pleasure without care, concern, or love for them. And to think that lusts entertained in secret have no impact on how we behave or treat others in public is naive. Sexual sins can cost you your soul. For this Lent, perhaps focus on giving up using others for your pleasure and choose to see and love each person, even strangers, as God-loved person they are.

And finally, Jesus observes: “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.” Apparently, some of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries tried to gain the credibility associated with solemn oaths while avoiding divine punishments for speaking falsely. Jesus corrects them noting that all things are God’s, so to swear falsely by Heaven, Earth, Jerusalem, or your own head is no less sinful. Instead, Jesus teaches: “Do not swear at all (in everyday life.) Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” Your reputation for speaking the truth should be such that no oaths are necessary. Now being honest doesn’t mean you have to share every your thought or answer every question. But Jesus never lies, and he wants you to be like him. And once you no longer have dishonesty to evade responsibility, your other behaviors will improve as well. Maybe for this Lent, focus on giving up lying. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No,’ to be closer to the Holy One.

Lent, a season for penance, conversion, and growing closer to our Lord is just around the corner. This year, would you like to become the best person in Christ that you have ever been? Then form a plan to welcome the grace of Jesus Christ to transform you from the inside out.

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