Summary: The teachings of Jesus were radical and astonishing; if we are to convert the world, especially Islamic adherents, we must be both loving and astonishing in our witness.
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.
Today’s communion verse, which is taken from the Gospel lines just preceding these two healing stories from St. Matthew, are as follows: “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” The word rendered as “authority” in this verse is the Greek didaskon, which means the power to act. It stitches together what Matthew has just taught us, and the beautiful stories of the healing of a leper and of a Roman centurion’s servant.
Jesus came down the mountain. What mountain? It was the mountain, traditionally one at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee, where the Savior taught the Great Sermon. Recall the many powerful words in that Sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .blessed the clean of heart. . .blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” The Beatitudes are Jesus’s perfect moral code, a program of life that will make us saints if only we follow them. There is much more: “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to the Father in heaven.” Jesus invented the new evangelization. We must shine before the world, not so much by what we say, but by what good we do. “Do not even be angry with your brother. If at the altar you recall that your brother has something against you, go and be reconciled before presenting your gifts.” Forgive, forgive, forgive. And the most challenging of all, “Love your enemies and do good for them.”
There were in the words of the Lord echoes of the original Law of Moses. Indeed, the vision of Christ pronouncing the new Law of Love from the mountaintop parallels the image of Moses coming down Mount Horeb with the Ten Commandments. And here is where our Gospel story truly echoes that of Exodus. Moses came down with Joshua and saw that his people, weak of mind and heart, had built a false god and were engaging in sinful worship. He invoked the power of God and the people paid for their weakness in blood.
Jesus, too, comes down from the mountain and finds a people weak of mind and heart and body. But the Lord is, in biblical language, “moved in his gut” when He finds weakness in us. His power is not manifest in fire and brimstone, but in His salvation and healing. He will show us how to live the Beatitudes by becoming our Great Beatitude. Because He is clean of heart, He has the power to cleanse the leper. Because He is forgiveness embodied, He not only forgives the oppressive Romans, He heals their families and their hearts. And because His light was ever shining before humans of every race and heritage, His legacy is us–men and women and children from east and west and north and south, summoned to the sacrificial banquet table and the altar of God in heaven to celebrate with saints of every age. As our Alleluia sings today: “Alleluia, the Lord reigns. Let earth exult! Let the many islands rejoice.”
With that in mind, we can now turn with confidence to the words St. Paul shared with every age of Christians. Some scholars believe that what he wrote to the Romans was his meditation on some verses in the Book of Proverbs. But it is certainly Paul’s lived response to the Sermon on the Mount.
He was writing to the little Catholic church in Rome. It is not clear whether St. Peter was there yet; after all, St. Paul himself had not yet visited them on his last and greatest biblically-recorded journey in chains. The little Christian community probably dated from the day of Pentecost itself. It was made up of Jews and Romans and probably people from all over the Roman empire. The Roman church was not regarded well by the elite of Rome. Many Christians had been expelled from Rome about five years earlier by the Emperor Claudius. So persecution was not a foreign idea to them; the cost of discipleship was paid every time they came into contact with their Jewish relatives.
So Paul tells them, and us, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He warns us to live in harmony with all. He is adamant–he says it twice: “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” In other words, if there is a dispute, it should not begin with the Christian. Christians should be known for their love, even their love of their enemies. Proverbs chapter 25 tells us, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 22 for you will heap coals of fire on his head,