A headline grabbed my attention enroute during my flight from India. It said, “An 85-year Harvard study found the No. 1 thing that makes us happy in life: It helps us live longer.” The fact that it is an 85-year-old study and that it was about human happiness and longevity intrigued me. The article reads: “In 1938, Harvard researchers embarked on a decades-long study to find out: What makes us happy in life? The researchers gathered health records from 724 participants from all over the world and asked detailed questions about their lives at two-year intervals. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not career achievement, money, exercise, or a healthy diet. The most consistent finding we’ve learned through 85 years of study is: Positive relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer. Period.” As I read the article, I said to myself, “Well Jesus could have told you that!”
For the past two Sundays, the gospel readings have been from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today’s gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ sermon. The focus of today’s gospel is relationships — the very thing that 85 years of Harvard research says is the key to human happiness and longevity. Jesus focuses on four areas that affect human relationships — anger, adultery, divorce, and making oaths. If we take Jesus’ words to heart, it will not merely make us happy and live longer. It will lead us to eternal happiness.
Here are my three practical implications from today’s readings:
Christianity is Relational
There are many ways to imagine religion. In Jesus’ time, many folks imagined religion primarily in terms of laws and commandments. Jesus refers to this way of understanding religion when he says, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place” (Mt 5:18). The newness that Jesus brough to religion, however, was not legalism. The newness Jesus brought to religion was that that he came “not to abolish the law but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). As scripture teaches us, “Love is the fulfilment of the law” (Rom 13:8). Thus, we can say that Christianity is primarily relational.
Jesus emphasized this in another passage in the gospels. When a scholar of the law asked Jesus “Which commandment is the greatest?” (Mk 22:36), Jesus summarized all the laws and commandments saying, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:37-40). This precisely is the meaning of Jesus saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). Jesus teaches us that love is the fulfillment of the Law. And this is what I mean when I say that Christianity is relational.
Anger, Adultery, Divorce, and Oaths
The four areas that Jesus focuses on in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount is about relationships. Anger destroys relationships. Unforgiveness destroys relationships. Infidelity and adultery even in thought destroys relationships. Divorce destroys relationships. Oaths becomes necessary to safeguard contractual relationships. Jesus suggests that his disciples should be people of such integrity that oaths become irrelevant. Jesus’ disciples, most of all, should know that their yes means yes, and their no means no. This, precisely because we understand the Christianity is relational.
The Harvard study points out that positive relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer.” Anger, adultery, divorce, and mistrust work directly against positive relationships; against the ‘blessedness’ that Jesus promises.
Today, both Jesus and scientific research are inviting is evaluate our lives. May love, forgiveness, reconciliation, fidelity, and integrity replace our anger, infidelities, broken relationships, and mistrust. This according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is the way to ‘blessedness.’ This is the secret to long and happy living both on earth and in eternity.
Blessedness, Happiness, Longevity of Life: A Choice
Today’s first reading begins with these words: If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sir 15:15-17).
Should we take these words to mean that ‘blessedness,’ happiness, longevity of life is matter of choice? Certainly, I do not want to be simplistic in answering the question. Not every victim of anger, violence, or war choses to be a victim. Not every victim of infidelity, not every victim of divorce, and not every victim of false oaths chooses to be a victim. Yet, even for victims, today’s scripture puts our response to anger, infidelity, divorce, and false promises, in our hands. Even as victims, we can choose the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, fidelity, and integrity. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:24-25).
In other words, even as victims, we are not without a choice. Our greatest example and model is Jesus. As he suffered excruciating brutality on the cross, he chose to say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). In this, Jesus fulfilled the Law. May we too do the same. Not only happiness in this life but our eternal life depends on it.
Let me end today’s homily with a parable. A little boy in a tiny village had the habit of catching butterflies and holding them in his fist. He would then go about the village asking people, “Is the butterfly in my hand dead or alive?” If someone said that the butterfly was dead, he would let the butterfly go free; but if someone said that it was alive, he would crush it and prove them wrong. One day, a wise man visited the village. The boy approached the wise man and said, “Sir, please tell me whether the butterfly in my hand is dead or alive.” The wise man merely said, “Son, the choice is in your hands.”
Today, God places happiness, longevity, ‘blessedness,’ and eternity in our hand. The choice is in our hands.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Pixel-Shot.
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.