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The Word, The Truth

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Homily for the 6th Sun in Ordinary Time, 12 February 2023, Mt 5:17-37 (For the Feast of St Jerome Emiliani Parish Church)

Can it ever happen that a person who is accused of breaking the law is actually fulfilling it, while another person who is claiming to be obeying the law is actually violating it? What Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel is actually his reply to people who regarded him as a serial breaker of the law. Was he advocating to abolish the law? His answer is, “I have come not to abolish the law but TO FULFILL IT.”

Once, he was accused of breaking the Law because he had performed a healing on a Sabbath day. The Pharisees saw this as a violation of the NO WORK rule on Sabbath day, their Day of Rest and Worship. Something wonderful has just happened. A man who has been burdened with a physical disability has just been healed. But what catches the attention of the Pharisees is a violation. It’s as if the they were looking at a piece of doughnut and all they could see was the hole in the middle.

They had forgotten that the original purpose of the Sabbath law was precisely to give rest to those who were made to work nonstop in Jewish society—like the slaves, the migrant workers, and their beasts of burden. Check out the ten commandments as listed in chapter 5 of the Book of Deuteronomy. Among the reasons given why people must observe the Sabbath rest was precisely respect for the rights of workers, slaves and animals to a day-off from work.

In Mark 3:4 Jesus tries to reason out with the Pharisees by asking, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Not only do the Pharisees remain silent; in v.6 we are even told that they “went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.”

The one they are accusing of violating the law is actually fulfilling the spirit of the law—which is to give rest to those who were burdened. Ironically, it is the very ones who who are defending the law who are now plotting a murder—which is an even more serious violation of the law, the 5th commandment.

You see, sometimes the law can even be made into a weapon of injustice and used precisely to oppress the powerless. We are no strangers to this in our own country. But every now and then, we rejoice when we hear about a few independent-minded people in our judiciary who refuse to be influenced by politics in their decisions. There are still those who uphold their duty to defend the spirit of the law against those who weaponize the letter of the law. We need legal luminaries, especially in the Supreme Court of the land whose role precisely is to interpret the law, especially when it is already obviously being used as an instrument of injustice.

When Jesus said, “It is what comes out of your mouth rather than what you put into your mouth that makes you unclean,” he practically contradicted the Jewish regulations about foods that supposedly can cause people to become spiritually unclean.

Remember also that scene when Jesus refused to cast a stone on a woman who had allegedly been caught in adultery? Jesus must have been wondering why only the woman had been dragged in public. Where was the man? If it takes two to tango where was the partner?

John tells us how he challenges the accusers, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” John says Jesus refuses to join them in passing judgment on this woman, which imcluded stripping her naked in public and stoning her to death. The evangelist tells us Jesus kept his head bowed down. I don’t think he was writing anything on the ground; I think it was to avoid looking at the woman so as not to add to her humiliation.

I wonder if Jesus did not have in mind the accusers of the woman when he said, “He who looks with lust at a woman is already guilty of adultery himself.” Remember the saying, “when you point an accusing finger on someone, do not forget that three other fingers are pointing at you.”

Commenting on the 8th commandment about bearing false witness, Jesus points out that it is not even necessary for people to swear an oath in order to convince others that they are telling the truth. Instead, he simply says, “Just say no when you mean no, and yes when you mean yes.”

As a good Jew, he knows that the ten commandments have no meaning, except in the context of COVENANT. They are all founded on the first commandment: the only reason why you obey them is because the Lord is your God and you are his people. That is why I prefer to call them TEN COMMITMENTS than TEN COMMANDMENTS. SAMPUNG KASUNDUAN, instead of SAMPUNG KAUTUSAN. We keep the commandments only because we are committed to a relationship with our God, a relationship which Jesus sums up with the two loves, vertical and horizontal: “Love of God above all, and love of neighbor as oneself.”

If it is love that motivates you, it is not enough to follow the letter of the law; it is not enough to just fulfill one’s religious obligations. In the Gospel, Jesus invites his disciples not just to live out the spirit of the law but to go to the very root source of it, which is LOVE.

Today you are also celebrating your patron saint here at St. Jerome Emiliani Parish Church. I really do not know much about his life, but the little that I know makes me think that he may have been inspired by another saint who lived about three hundred years before he was born—St. Francis of Assisi.

I couldn’t help but note the parrallelism between the two: they were both Italians and children of wealthy parents. They both renounced their wealth, and chose to live and work for the poorest of the poor. They both founded a religious order. They both chose not to be ordained priest, even if most of their disciples became priests.

There is one other element that both Jerome Emiliani and Francis of Assisi had in common: they both experienced their conversion in their youth after living a profligate life and spending sometime in prison. I suspect therefore that like St Francis, Jerome experienced more than liberation from a literal prison. God had also set him free from a religion of sheer rules and regulations, for a faith that allowed him to discover God’s love as the very root source of a truly fruitful life.

When I was a young boy, I remember reading about Jose Rizal’s study of an indigenous fable about the Monkey and the Turtle. One day, the monkey and the turtle together found a banana tree floating on the river . They excitedly worked hard to pull it ashore because they were both very fond of bananas. The monkey proposed to divide the tree into two parts because they both had found it. But he insisted that he should get the upper part because he knew that the fruits would come from there. The turtle humbly gave in and chose the lower part with the roots. Of course you know what happened next: the monkey’s part quickly withered and its leaves turned brown. Many days later, he chanced upon the turtle’s place and saw him under his banana tree enjoying lots of ripe fruits.

That’s not the end of the story of course, but it should be enough to apply it to the life of St. Jerome Emiliani. He was no stupid monkey but a clever turtle made wise by Jesus, who gave him the wisdom to know the real source of a fruitful life—not the leaves but the roots, not religious obligations, rules and regulations, but rather a faith firmly planted on Love—love of God, and love of neighbor as oneself.

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Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

President of Radio Veritas

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