In 1910, in rural Washington State, graduating eighth graders were expected to know the answers to the following questions:
Name the four kinds of sentences as to use, and the three kinds of sentences as to structure.
Mark diacritically the vowels in the following: banana, admire, golden, ticket, lunch.
What were the three objective points of the Federal forces in the Civil War?
How do you distinguish between the terms Puritns, Pilgrims, and Separatists?
Sketch a map of South America, locating three rivers, five capital cities.
What number diminished by 33 1/3 percent of itself, equals 38?
Why are the arteries more protected than the veins?
How did you do? Remember: there was no Wikipedia or Google back then either!
My point in bringing this up is that these were basic bits of knowledge that a 13- or 14-year-old was expected to know at that time. Today, we’re happy that Johnny can just read as he enters high school. What happened? Our standards have seemed to have dropped. Why? Are we dumber now? I can assure you that we are just as dumb now as we were back then!
The problem is that over time, we tend to adjust our standards when less people can live up to them. When the “bare minimum” is acceptable, the bare minimum actually drops; and nothing is extraordinary any more.
As a priest, I will often encounter someone going to confession who is trying to break the ice (because, let’s face it, confession is awkward). They’ll say something like, “Father, I’m a pretty good guy. I haven’t killed anyone.”
WELL I HOPE NOT!!! Here I am in a small box with you, so you better not be a psychopathic murderer!
But, if that’s the mark of a “good guy” or a “good Christian,” I certainly do not want to meet a bad one!
Jesus reminds us today of the Law – which He says He is not interested in throwing out. Rather, He wishes to perfect it – to fulfill it. How does He do this? Not by lowering the standards, but by raising them. Not only are we not to murder others, but we are to avoid those attitudes that lead to harmful thoughts and actions. Jesus always speaks to the heart – not to the bare minimum, but to the place where God has written His Law for us.
“Father, I’m a good Catholic; I haven’t cheated on my husband/wife.” Cue the applause. That’s the bare minimum of fidelity, isn’t it? But what’s the deeper meaning to the Law? Each day, when I drive home from the office, I pass a little place on North Point Boulevard called “Christina’s.” You know it. I know what goes on in there. According to Jesus today, adultery goes on in there; looking lustfully at another person. There are other places to drink; there are other places to eat (although I cannot imagine eating anything in that place!).
Jesus calls us not only beyond the bare minimum – beyond being “C” Catholics – but to excellence. He doesn’t do this to make us feel bad if and when we fail. He does it because we are so worth it. Our children are worth it! You are worth it!
We cannot settle for being mediocre Christians. We are better than that – we are capable of so much more. Hold yourself to a high standard and you will surprise everyone – including yourself. God won’t be surprised, though. He made you for excellence. Live up to it!