The older I get the more aware I am of the choices I have made and the consequences of those choices, not only for me but for others. Some were the right choices, others were not. Sometimes I was sure about the choice I was making, other times I was not at all sure. Some choices I would make again, others I would not. I have spent a lifetime choosing, and so have you.
Regardless of what I think about or how I evaluate my past choices I know this. A lifetime of choosing has shaped who I am and what my life is about. A lifetime of choosing has determined the relationships I have and the quality of those relationships. A lifetime of choosing has influenced the way I see and engage the world. For better or worse my life and world have been built around the choices I have made. I am not saying that other people or circumstances do not affect or play a part in our choosing. They do. I just don’t think we can blame our circumstances or others for our choices. Neither can we escape or avoid choosing. Within every set of circumstances, good, bad, or neutral, there is alway a choice to be made.
As our first reading tells us,
“Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:17).
Every day we choose between life and death. Every day we are choosing our way into one or the other.
We all have our reasons for the choices we make. Sometimes our choices are about gaining approval and acceptance, wanting to fit in and be liked. Sometimes our choices arise from a desire to be loved and accepted. We choose based upon the costs, benefits, and risks associated with our choices. Sometimes we chosen to give up and others times to muscle our way through. I suspect we’ve all made choices that we thought would make us successful, wealthy, popular. We’ve probably made choices that we hoped would create the persona and identity we wanted. Sometimes we choose power, control, or security. Often our choices are about self-protection or making ourselves feel better and happy. And sometimes they have been about making another feel bad, an attempt to get back at him or her. Have you ever chosen yes when you really meant no? I suspect we all have. Why did we do that? What was behind that?
There are thousands of reasons for the choices we make. Most of us, I am guessing, look back on our choices as having been either right or wrong. They were good choices or bad choices. But what if there’s another way of looking at it? What if it’s not really about good or bad, right or wrong?
Here’s why I ask that. Have you ever gotten exactly what you chose only to realize it was not what you really wanted? Have you ever made a choice that you knew was the right choice, a good choice, but it left you feeling empty, as if something was missing? Despite getting what you wanted, what you chose, your life was not enriched, made full and vibrant they way you thought it would be. Instead it felt diminished and impoverished.
Those experiences of choosing tell us there is something more. They point to the truth and wisdom in our first reading (Sirach 15:15-20). There is really only one choice to be made, and it is the choice between life and death. Sure, we make lots of other choices but in the end the only choice that really matters is the one between life and death. It is both the ultimate choice and the ultimate criteria for making all other choices. After all, what good does it do us to gain the whole world, to be given exactly what we chose, only to lose our life? (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36)
Is what we choose to think, say, or do life-giving? Does it sustain, nurture, and grow life for ourselves or another? Or does it destroy, diminish, or deny life? Does it leave us bereft of life? Does it impoverish life for ourselves or another?
We make the choice between life and death in so many ways every day of our lives. We make that choice in the ways we choose to see and look at ourselves and others. It’s in our thoughts. It’s in the words we speak as well as the things we have done and left undone. So what if we intentionally chose life in every decision we made? What if choosing life was at the center of our thoughts, the words we speak, and the things we do? How might that change your life, your relationships, your world?
I think that’s what Jesus is getting at in today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37). Jesus knows that life isn’t to be codified and that choices are more than a cost benefit analysis, more than getting what we desire, and more than simply following the rules. Now, I am not suggesting that we throw out the rules as if they don’t matter. Jesus did not do that. Rather, he fulfilled the law. He recognized and revealed the law to be about life.
The law was never intended to divide people into categories of good or bad, right or wrong, law abider or law breaker. It was to point the way to life. That’s what Jesus does. That’s why he could say that he came not to destroy but to fulfill the law. Jesus did not come to make us good but to make us alive. He set us free to make choices that support, sustain, grow, and nurture life for ourselves and one another.
What if we took to heart the choice between life and death? It means we would have to look at the law and our lives differently. Keeping the law would not be the ultimate goal. Rather, it would be a means to life. It means that the choices we make would begin not with the circumstances around us but with the circumstances within us.
When Jesus says in today’s gospel, “You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you…,” he is asking us to look within ourselves, to look at the circumstances within us. He is moving our vision inward.
This inward looking is not an escape from or avoidance of the world around us. It’s the recognition that the choices we make, the words we speak, and the actions we take in the world around us first begin and arise from the world within us.
It’s not enough, Jesus says, to simply restrain from murdering someone. We will be just as liable to judgment if we are angry with a brother or sister. Jesus wants transformation of our hearts more than mere compliance with the law. It is the transformed heart that begins to change our life and relationships.
Every year the FBI publishes the murder rate in America. We all want the murder rate to go down. But what would it be like if the anger rate in our actions went down? If the anger rate in our words went down? If the anger rate in our thoughts went down? What would it be like if the fear rate went down? What if the grudge and resentment rates went down? How might it change your life, your relationships, the world if these rates went down?
That’s what Jesus is after. Choosing life begins with looking inside. So what do you see when you look within? What anger is there? What fear? What resentments? What prejudices? What grudges? What do you see happening within you and how has that affected your relationships? How has it influenced the words you’ve spoken to and the actions you’ve taken towards another? In what ways has it determined how you view yourself, your self-talk, and the actions you’ve taken against yourself?
What if before we ever spoke a word, we asked ourselves if the words we chose to speak were life giving? How might it change our life and relationships if before we acted we asked ourselves whether our chosen action would grow and sustain life? What if every time we asked ourselves these questions and the answer was “no,” we chose again; we made another choice, a choice for life?
I think most of the time we know the difference. We know when we’ve chosen life and we know when we’ve chosen death. We can feel the difference. Every time we make a judgment of someone else we chosen death. When we speak or act based on anger we’ve chosen death. When we betray ourselves we’ve chosen death. When we promote or are indifferent to injustice we have chosen death. When we isolate and live in fear we’ve chosen death. We also know what it’s like to choose life. When we come to the altar rail and hold out our hands to receive the Body of Christ we are choosing life. We choose life every time we offer forgiveness and work on our relationships. We choose life when we care for the poor, strive for justice, and respect the dignity of every human being. We choose life when beauty is our worldview. We choose life when we are generous with our time, compassion, money, and resources. We choose life when we ask for help. When we choose to love we are choosing life.
In just a few moments you will see what choosing life looks. Lewis will be baptized. That baby boy will become the newest face of choosing life. Your presence and prayers, the renewal of you own baptismal vows, and your promise to support Lewis in his life in Christ are all about choosing life, for yourselves and for Lewis. Think about what you want for him, all the good wishes you have for him, the prayers you offer for him, the dreams you have for his life. That’s what choosing life looks like.
Despite our best intentions for choosing life I know there are times when we settle for less than the life God dreams for us. Even here we have choice. If we choose to beat ourselves up for making a “bad” choice, a “wrong” choice, we are choosing death. There is, however, a simple antidote, a corrective, to the times we have chosen death. Just choose again. Choose life, and choose life often.
There is good news and bad news about the choices we make. The good news is that we will be given what we choose, and the bad news is that we will be given what we choose. So choose life, choose life often, and if you need to, choose again.
“Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:17).