A tremendous change happens in biblical faith a century before Jesus’ birth: Pharisees begin to believe in an afterlife. Before that, Yahweh’s people limited their faith to this world. Though they scrupulously kept the 613 laws of Moses, they didn’t do so to get into heaven, but to have a successful, fulfilled life here on earth.
When Sirach promises those who “keep the commandments” will be “saved,” and those who “trust in God shall live,” he’s promising salvation and life right here and now. The author provides his readers with faith’s fundamental option: “life and death, good and evil; whichever we choose shall be given us.”
Though Jesus and his followers profess a faith which goes beyond this present world, they don’t discard that part of their ancestors’ faith which saw the value in this world. When the first television came into our home in 1949, we didn’t throw out our radio.
Yet, through the centuries, lots of Christians did just that. We so focused on getting into heaven that we forgot about living a successful, fulfilled life here and now. Our seminary spiritual directors frequently reminded us of the well-known Cure of Ars legend. On his way to assume his pastoral duties at Ars, Jean Vianney gets lost. Meeting a young boy, the recently ordained priest offers a quid pro quo: “If you show me the way to Ars, I’ll show you the way to heaven.” That promise became a mantra for diocesan priests: our ministry should revolve around getting our people into heaven.
After studying and teaching the Christian Scriptures for almost half a century, I’m convinced neither the historical or risen Jesus would have defined his ministry in those terms. The itinerant preacher from Capernaum certainly was concerned with getting his followers into heaven, but he also was driven to help them appreciate the significance of this world, long before they stepped through the pearly gates.
We must always remember what motivates this part of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Some well- meaning Jewish parents had asked their “Christian” children, “What do you find in this Jesus from Nazareth that you don’t find in our ‘old-time religion?’ If you just keep the Mosaic laws, you’ll eventually get into heaven. What does he offer that’s different from that?”
They answered simply. “You’re right about getting into heaven. But Jesus takes us beyond just the outward observance of our laws; he shows us how to experience the ‘kingdom of heaven’ right now.” (As I often remind you, the biblical phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” refers to God working effectively in our daily lives.) That’s why Matthew’s Jesus states, “Unless your righteousness (your relations with people and God) surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus makes certain his disciples know that 1940s hit, Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better! He demands we do more than just avoid being angry, or commit physical adultery, or swear false oaths. As he says at the beginning of today’s pericope, he’s not in the business of getting rid of rules and regulations; he wants his followers to go beyond what these laws externally command, to develop such deep relations with those around us that we surface his risen presence in all we meet, do and experience.
That insight leads us to reinterpret Paul’s famous I Corinthian quote: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, that God has rendered to us through the Spirit.” What we humans have yet to see, hear, or imagine doesn’t start the second after we die; it’s possible to experience it long before our moment of death. We simply have to be willing to die to ourselves long before our physical death; the only way to acquire life here and in the future.