Cut to the Heart

Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture
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The Gospel of Matthew tells us that as soon as the Pharisees hear of the Sadducees’ defeat at the hands of Jesus, the Pharisees gather together in order to try their own luck in dealing with this new, upstart rabbi. One Pharisee in particular, a lawyer, comes up with the seemingly foolproof question – “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” [1]  

Of course, what the Pharisee does not realize is that the one he questions is the very author of life (and Law) itself.  

Jesus answers him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and 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.” [2]  

The Gospel does not record the manner in which the Pharisee responded to these words, but to me, the evangelist’s choice to omit them speaks volumes. I happen to have a few lawyer friends myself, and rarely have I found them to be at a loss for words. One can imagine that Jesus’ perfect reply astounded the Pharisee to the point where he is “cut to the heart.”  

But the Pharisees' silence should not surprise us, for Jesus has not come to make us feel comfortable, or to condone our rebellious behavior. In order for Him to shake us from our doldrums, we must be disturbed. In order for Him to exorcise our tendency to desire mediocrity, we must be bothered. For Him to dispel our inner, self-righteous Pharisee, we must be silenced. Otherwise, we will not change.  

Whenever we hear the Word of God preached, and by grace, are able to receive it with openness, we also find ourselves “cut to the heart,” much like the first hearers of the Gospel message in the Acts of the Apostles. This holy preaching– this kerygma–so explosive in power, facilitates an encounter with Christ that convicts us to live better; a life that is ultimately conformed to the life of Christ. For it is only after the Word is preached that we turn with open hands to Peter and the apostles asking, “What are we to do, my brothers?” [3]

Unfortunately, the human condition is such that we must be constantly exposed to this Word, for it is all too easy for us to slip back into our old ways. We who are self-content require Christ’s liberation and encouragement to “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [4]

One of our problems today is that this kerygma is taking place exclusively in the Sunday pulpit. Instead, it should also be on our lips wherever we are: in our streets, in our workplace, and most importantly, in our homes. The reading from the Office of Compline after Evening Prayer I on Sunday exhorts us to “Take to heart these words…[and] drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.” [5]

The Dominican Order has taken these words to heart, and in its great wisdom, has required each Priory to read the Rule of St. Augustine on a regular basis. The Rule, a true spiritual masterpiece, serves as the Order’s founding document and reminds us of how we should conduct ourselves in the monastery. When read aloud in common, it becomes our own internal kerygma. The Rule’s message, however, is by no means exclusive to monks, nuns, or friars. It can serve as a reminder to all that the demands of the Gospel orient us towards true love of God and neighbor, so that we may achieve the perfection we seek. 

Each time the Rule is read, I am “cut to the heart” by its words. I recognize my many failings, petty behavior, and selfish desires. As this kerygma burrows its way into my soul, a new fault of mine bubbles to the surface. And I am grateful for it, because there are many faults I may otherwise be unaware of. But even after hearing the Rule read aloud dozens of times, I feel no closer to having accomplished its prescriptions. It is here where I realize that I have lots of work to do.

But there is hope, for the kerygma is never meant to lead us to despair. While each new day may bring the inevitability of sin, the story does not end with this. Christ's victory on the cross has won for us the great gift to repent, and to believe anew. For this, we are in constant need of the grace of the Word, and I find myself consoled by the concluding sentences of the Rule: “If any one of you realizes that he has failed on a specific point, let him be sorry for the past, safeguard the future, and continue to pray for his offences to be forgiven, that he not be led into temptation.” [6]

[1] Matthew 22:36

[2] Matthew 22:37-40

[3] Acts 2:37

[4] Matthew 5:48

[5] Deuteronomy 6:4-7

[6] Rule of St. Augustine, Chapter 8