You have heard that it was said to your ancestors…
But I say to you…!
– Jesus in today’s Gospel (Matthew 5:17-37)
A recent book had an interesting insight on the moral commands in today’s Gospel.1 Comparing the demands made by Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the author noted that in the first two of the great Abrahamic traditions it is possible – barely, but possible – to keep all the rules and fulfill all the duties. This can reinforce the damaging great divide between “us” and “them” that human nature seems so inclined to: rule-keepers (me, or us), vs. rule-breakers (everybody else). And it allows the rule-keepers to think that “God is on our side” – after all, we went to great lengths to keep all the dietary laws, the prescriptions about prayers, the moral code, the dress code, and much else besides.
But in the Christian tradition it’s simply impossible to keep the moral code fully. No one succeeds at living as Jesus taught.2 Today’s Gospel makes that clear. Jesus says we are responsible not only for our actions, but even for our thoughts and desires. (Some early Christian theologians said we are responsible for the content of our dreams as well.)
Thus any honest Christian should know from personal experience that the one, key thing we have in common with every other human being on the planet is that we are all moral failures. There is no “successfully-moral us,” and no “morally-deficient them.” As Saint Paul says, “All have sinned.”
Shortly after becoming pope our Holy Father was asked by a journalist how he would describe himself, so that people could get to know him. Francis said that the first thing people should know is that he is a sinner. Perhaps that awareness is what makes him so approachable and so concerned for those on the margins of society: He knows (and shows) he’s “one of us” with everyone.
This universality of sin and failure rubs our self-esteem based culture the wrong way, and can probably get under our skin as well. Most of us like to think of ourselves as “good people”; to focus on one’s failures can lead others to think there’s something wrong with us. It’s true that there are dangerous and wrong ways to think about our failures. Sometimes a preoccupation with failure is a sign of clinical depression.3
But maybe thinking of ourselves as sinners, along with every other human being, would be good for us. For one thing, it can make it easier to forgive others who wrong us – and to ask for forgiveness as well. And this can be “something in common” with every stranger we meet; not that we need to talk about our sins, but that we know we’re not so different deep-down, no matter how differently we may dress, speak, and act. (It can also be “something in common” with people who have committed crimes, which might lead us to think differently about our society’s treatment of prisoners; but that’s for another column.)
The last word should go to the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his resistance to the Reich:
For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy….. However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to the God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you – a sacrifice, a good deed – but rather desiring you alone. God has come to make the sinner blessed.4
Until next week, peace.
 Unapologetic: why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. By Francis Spufford. HarperCollins, 2012.
 For doctrinal fussbudgets, I grant that Mary is the exception here – but only by God’s unique gift of grace to her.
 Interestingly, though, some psychological research indicates that depressed people see themselves and the world more accurately than non-depressed people do: it’s called “depressive realism.”
 Life Together (1939)