We have all had the experience of telling what we thought was a harmless white lie. We may have done it to spare another person’s feelings. Later on, it turned out that we had to tell other lies to cover our tracks or the person discovered the truth on his own. As a result, feelings were hurt or a friendship was damaged. What we thought was a harmless lie ended up causing us much needless anguish.
On the other hand, we have also had the experience of doing a good deed. We may have given someone a hand with a project or listened to a friend’s problems. At the time, it seemed like a small gesture. Then, months and sometimes years later, that person reminds us of our good deed and tells us how much it meant. What we thought was a trivial act of kindness turned out to touch someone deeply.
Cardinal Thuan, a former bishop of Vietnam, wrote in his memoirs: “A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”
Every day of our lives - indeed, every minute of every day - we have choices to make. Those choices, no matter how insignificant they may seem, shape our character either for better or for worse. And the consequences of those actions also add up to our benefit or our detriment. As we hear in the first reading from the book of Sirach: “Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses will be given to him.” Every decision we make is important. Every course of action we take determines in what direction our life will be headed.
Jesus speaks to this in today’s gospel passage. Sinfulness consists not just in breaking the commandments. Rather it is rooted in the decisions we make and in our thoughts and desires which, though hidden to others, are made plain to the eyes of God.
Most of us will make it through life without breaking the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” But, as Jesus says, how many of us at times have wished harm on others because they have hurt us or because we are jealous of them? How many of us carry grudges and resentments over the years because we are unwilling to forgive? We may not have done any real harm to these people. But the malice that we bear in our hearts is the same sinful root - anger - from which so many despicable and reprehensible acts stem. We have made seemingly small decisions to not forgive, to bear a grudge or to envy someone, and it has made our hearts hard with anger.
We only have to look at some of the tragic events of the past year to see how true Jesus’ words are. When a shooting or a bombing takes place, we often learn about the history and character of the perpetrator. They did not just decide one day for no reason that they would kill their fellow human beings. Rather, resentment and hate had been building up within them over years. Finally, it gets to a point at which they explode, lashing out at others for all the misfortunes and injustices they believe they have suffered. And it all began with daily decisions not to forgive, not to sympathize with others and not to find positive ways to deal with their anger and hurt.
Jesus teaches us that not just the actions we take but the thoughts we think are the result of decisions we make. It is true that sometimes ideas pop into our heads without our knowing where they came from. However, we can choose which thoughts we will welcome and which we will dismiss. We can decide which thoughts we will entertain and which we will recognize to be foolish or harmful. We can decide which thoughts we will follow through with and which we will abandon. It requires much discipline for us to be aware of what we are thinking and to change the direction of those thoughts before they take us down the wrong road. But such discipline is vital if we are to keep God’s word and learn to love our neighbor from our heart.
The good news is that we do not need to do this alone. While no one can read our thoughts or see into our hearts, God can. His Holy Spirit scrutinizes all things as Saint Paul tells us in the second reading. He can make us aware of thoughts and feelings which are causing bitterness and anger to well up within us. And he can guide our minds to thoughts of joy, peace and love. We need only commit ourselves to spending some quiet time in prayer daily asking the Spirit to guard and guide our thoughts and feelings. Then we will experience an inner transformation and inner peace because the burden of grudges and long guarded jealousies will be lifted from us and our hearts will be free to love.
The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote” "Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything."
Each of us has choices to make. How we choose will determine what kind of person we become and how our lives will turn out. If we are not happy with the direction our lives have taken to this point, there is always time for us to change course. The decision to come to Mass today is a good start. The next step is to put our lives in God’s hands and give him control over the decisions we make. If we ask him to, he will transform us beginning with the small choices we make. Then our crooked ways will be made straight and our bumpy paths made smooth.