When I was a kid, we lived on a bit of a hill that sloped down to our backyard and into the neighbors. At some point, the previous owner had built a retaining wall so that there was a level patio. Along the edges of the concrete patio were these absolutely ugly bushes that grew year round – half-weed, half-plant – and acted as a sort of fence. No matter how ugly the bushes were, however, we couldn’t take them down: they kept my two brothers and me from falling off the wall, four or five feet into our neighbors yard.
This image of a fence of sorts is helpful in putting today’s Gospel into perspective: that is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel.
We hear another piece of the Sermon on the Mount today, and Jesus uses a method of teaching that would have been familiar to everyone listening to him: he built a fence around the Law.
The idea was simple: to violate the Law was such a serious matter, one needed to do everything that could be done to make sure that one didn’t even get close to a violation.
Put into perspective, today’s Gospel may make a bit more sense:
In order to avoid murder, build a fence around anger.
In order to avoid unfaithfulness in marriage, build a fence around the eyes.
In order to avoid using God’s name in vain, never swear an oath.
This is the fence around the Law that Jesus is building: but it is a huge fence!
That’s the other thing that we need to remember: when Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven wouldn’t be entered if righteousness didn’t exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, he was setting a very high standard!
This Gospel, then, at first glance, seems like it is putting up big “No” signs everywhere and heaping upon us expectations that are too burdensome to bear.
The key to all of this, however, is not just what Jesus says, but also what he did and what does.
What we hear in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians gives us a hint to this: he writes about “God’s wisdom, mysterious and hidden.”
This wisdom is all bound up in the person of Jesus. And that is good news indeed!
Because Jesus didn’t just build fences: he also tore them down.
And so, he built a fence around anger, but also showed us how to forgive.
And so, he built a fence around jealously, but also showed how the poor are those special ones in God’s Kingdom.
And so, he built a fence around harsh words, but also taught us compassion.
The wisdom of God isn’t just about building fences; it’s about tearing them down too.
And so this week, I think we ought keep our spiritual lives simple: find a fence that needs building, or find a fence that needs tearing down.
Build a fence around a bad habit, or tear down a fence that keeps us from being compassionate or forgiving.
Regardless, however, of what needs to be done in our lives: let us approach the Table of the Lord and in doing so, ask with honesty for God’s wisdom to enter our hearts and so teach us what fences we can focus on this week.