Reaching for the heart

By Brad Torline.

The Gospel reading a few Fridays ago asked us to contemplate one of Jesus’ most challenging teachings: “You have heard that it was said … 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, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Matt 5:21-22)

Gehenna — the valley of Hannon — was the stuff of nightmares. It was a “cursed” place where the ancients offered human sacrifice. In Jesus’ time it was a place of disposal, where large heaps of garbage, refuse and even the remains of the poor were set ablaze, ceaselessly smoldering and burning.

This is the image Christ used to describe Hell. This is the punishment he says we risk when we say to someone, “You fool!” I don’t know about you, but this makes me nervous. In my day, I have said a number of things, to a number of people that were far worse than the phrase, “you fool!”

There’s some comfort in remembering that Jesus uses exaggeration from time to time. Even so, it’s usually to ensure that we are paying close attention and taking him very seriously. So what is he trying to tell us?

There is a common misconception that Christ came to abolish and replace the old laws. I have even heard of a young person saying, “Isn’t that why Jesus came? So that we can chill, have fun and not have to worry about the rules?” This is a fairly egregious misunderstanding, and it remains unfortunately prevalent today.

Jesus makes it clear that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, a Scripture scholar and Trappist monk, puts it this way: “Christ does not reject the law but rather, intensifies it. In some sense he makes it more demanding, because he imposes conditions, not only on the externals of our lives but above all on the abiding attitude of our hearts.”

External laws and external punishments are not bad. The point is that they are not enough. It’s good to not murder. It’s good to punish and judge those who do. But it’s not enough!

Christ, the Lord, the God-Man, the Word of God who, from all eternity, descended into the depths of man’s condition, taking on the form of man and slave and suffering victim IS NOT SATISFIED with the merely external. He is after the heart.

The Greek Fathers called Him “The Knower of Hearts,” for he sees our hearts and he will not be satisfied until, not only our external lives and actions are cleansed from sin, but also when our very hearts and beings are cleansed from any taint, from any of the sources of sin.

How does murder happen? It begins with anger. And anger begins with contempt. Jesus, the “Knower of Hearts” tells us that it is not good enough just to refrain from external violence. We must also cleanse ourselves of the internal violence of anger and contempt.

When I reflected on this and looked inwards a few weeks ago, I realized just how much anger and contempt I have inside. It’s difficult to not view everything in relation to the unbelievable events that occurred last year. But if you’re anything like me, 2020 has left its mark inside me — vestiges of anger and contempt, which may not always be on the surface but, like the fires of Gehenna, continuously smolder and burn in the background of my mind.

Even for those of us who refrained from getting into heated arguments in grocery stores or raging political battles on social media, how many of us escaped last year unscathed with no anger or contempt left in our hearts? I have realized that I have plenty of anger and contempt inside of me and that Jesus won’t be satisfied until I get rid of it.

Contempt for ideas, movements, ideologies and actions that threaten the Good are one thing. But contempt for human beings — any human being — is forbidden. In fact, if we harbor any, we make ourselves liable to Gehenna.

On the one hand this seems overwhelming. How, Lord, can you possibly expect us to eradicate any and all traces of contempt for other persons from our hearts? It is too enormous a task, too against our nature — it is impossible.

On the other hand we remember that, with grace nothing is impossible and that Lent is the perfect time to work on this. Let us turn to the sacraments — to confession, to the Eucharist, and to prayer and beg Jesus to clean us of contempt.

He will leave our zeal for truth, goodness and beauty and won’t alleviate righteous anger which seeks to defend such things from any actions or movements that attack them. But he will burn out all our contempt for people, including, perhaps, any contempt we have for ourselves. It is not ours to hold on to it. We are not permitted. We are commanded to let it go — to love even our enemies.

And when we finally do let go of all contempt — can you imagine the freedom?

Brad Torline is associate director for the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization, Diocese of Covington, Ky.