Friday February 18, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Week of Lent
Reading (Ezekiel 18:21-28) Gospel (St. Matthew 5:20-26)
In the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, we have some very, very hopeful news; that is, if we turn from the evil that we have done to do what is right, God is going to be merciful and the things of the past He will not remember because we have turned away from evil. However, one of the things that we as human beings have quite a tendency of doing is to make external changes without making the internal ones. And so Our Lord tells us that we have to go much further. He tells us that if our righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So it means not only stopping the bad actions that we were doing, but it means turning the heart toward the Lord.
He tells us, You have heard it said, ‘You shall not kill,’ and then goes on to tell us that if we get angry with somebody we are going to be liable to judgment and if we call someone a fool we are going to be liable to the fires of Gehenna. Now think about that and you see exactly the kind of charity the Lord is requiring of us. You can substitute “fool” with just about anything you want; the Greek word that would be there is “moron.” So if you call somebody a moron, a fool, an idiot, a jerk, or whatever it is (and I suspect most of us are probably fairly guilty of these sorts of things), the Lord is telling us we are liable to the fires of hell. So we see that it is not something we can be taking lightly. The Lord is very clear in what it is that He is requiring of us. We have to be righteous, truly righteous – not just looking righteous, not just acting righteously – but we have to be truly righteous. The inside has to change so that we are going to be living according to the way of Christ.
That is the way we have to be striving to live, and that is not an easy thing. The Lord is asking us to make some deep and profound changes in our lives, not just to make surface changes. That is what we really need to be looking at because He tells us that otherwise we are going to be handed over and we are going to have to pay every last debt. This is, again, one of these places in Scripture where there is a clear reference to Purgatory. He tells us we are going to be handed over and we will not be released until we pay the last penny. Well, there is no paying off your debt in hell; you do not get out. Hell is eternal, and once you are there, there is no leaving. So the only place where you would be able to pay the last penny is if there is an intermediate place where you have to deal with the debt that you have incurred.
Now there are lots of people who have the wrong attitude about this. They say, “Well, as long as I can get to Purgatory, that’s okay.” True enough. If you get to Purgatory, you will go to heaven because you cannot go backwards. However, do not aim for that. Why do you want to spend more time in Purgatory? It does not make sense. In Purgatory, there is no merit, there is no growth in holiness, there is no growth in charity; suffering is all that it is, being purified so that you can get to heaven. Why not do that now? Why not strive for true righteousness by working now to uproot the sins and to make the deep changes rather than waiting until after we have died? If we do it now, there is merit, there is growth in holiness. There is a higher position in heaven if we do it now. If we wait until we are in Purgatory, it is not going to do us any good at all.
And so we need again to look at what it means to be more righteous than the Pharisees. It means to have that interior change, that true change of heart, so that what we really are striving for is to serve the Lord with our whole heart and soul and strength, not just following the external precepts of the laws that the Church has laid out, but striving to live the spirit of them, that is, in the depths of our being to be seeking to love the Lord, to be seeking to be united with the Lord. That is what the Lord is calling us to: a greater practice of our faith than just going through the motions, to change the heart so that we are doing what Our Lord Himself has done for us and we are striving for that perfection of life to which we are called. He tells us very clearly that as Christians we are going to be held to a much higher accountability than anybody else on the face of the earth. We need to recognize that. It is not just doing something because it is the right thing to do, it is not doing something because we are afraid of what the judgment is, but it is doing things because of love of God and love of neighbor. That is where it is no longer just an external practice, but it is coming from the depths of our heart and the change that the Lord is seeking in us.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.