Last week, I received a very entertaining email from a friend of mine. The email contained a list of words and phrases that used to be common but are heard infrequently today. My friend prefaced the email by saying that he was in a nostalgic mood. You’ll be able to guess the era for which he was nostalgic by reading some of the quotes he sent.
“Heavens to Murgatroyd!” This exclamation of surprise and wonder was a favorite phrase of Snagglepuss, a pink mountain lion in the Yogi Bear Show cartoons of the 1960’s. Snagglepuss is thought to have been the inspiration for the Pink Panther cartoon character which appeared in the eponymous movies of the same era.
“Everything is hunky-dory.” There is no agreed-upon historical source for this expression of satisfaction or approval. The word “hunky” dates to the mid-nineteenth century and meant “healthy” or “able-bodied.” The origin of the word “dory” is unknown, but I’m hunky-dory with the lack of a definite etymology.
“Life is just swell.” In the mid-twentieth century, “swell” was an alternative to saying, “nifty,” or “neat,” or “dandy.” A half-century earlier, however, “a swell” or “a dandy” was a nattily attired gentleman. Today, using any of these words makes one sound like a “toff” in the twenty-first century usage of the term.
The email contained a few more vintage phrases that struck a chord with me. A few of those phrases are apt descriptions of common responses to Jesus’ preaching in today’s Gospel reading.
During the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus said, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven . . . whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment . . . whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna . . . If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna . . . do not swear at all; let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’.” (Mt. 5: 19,22,29-30,34,37 NABRE)
These old sayings are rarely spoken and even more rarely practiced. Rather than taking these teachings of Jesus seriously, it is more common to treat them as antiquated, obsolete, or simple-minded. Perhaps, you’ll recognize some of the following sentiments.
“P’shaw, what’s wrong with breaking a few commandments? You sound like a broken record when you point out that I give a bad example to others.”
“It doesn’t really matter what I say about the driver of that jalopy. My car windows are rolled up and no one can hear me call that driver a knucklehead, a nincompoop, or a pill.”
“Being Baptized, receiving the Eucharist, or going to Confession doesn’t really mean that I have to give up sinning. All that monkey business about avoiding sin is just hokum. If Jesus is really telling me that it would be better to forfeit an eye or a hand than to merit perdition, then I’m telling him, ‘See ya later, alligator’.”
Some of the statements and images in the Sermon on the Mount are rather graphic; all are quite demanding. Over the centuries, they have been misunderstood, poorly practiced, or ignored. Jesus’ intentions, however, are very simple and easy to grasp. Jesus is saying, “Hey! It’s your nickel: You determine your life by means of your choices; those choices also determine your after-life.”
If you wish to take refuge in the thought that your personal behavior has no moral significance, or that your actions have no lasting consequences, try to apply that same standard to the behavior of other people. The next time someone says or does something that offends, insults, or frightens you, try excusing them by saying that it doesn’t really matter. The next time someone does something that threatens, deprives, or harms you, try excusing them on the basis that the consequences are limited only to you. If you’re willing to be honest, you’ll admit that your selfish behavior has precisely the same meaning and consequences as the selfish behavior of the people whom you judge to be morally deficient. If your behavior is a carbon copy of the behavior of people who offend you, you’ve forfeited the right to be offended.
Jesus’ teaching isn’t old-fashioned or out-of-date, it’s timeless. Unless our actions are true expressions of the claims we make about goodness and justice, we live a lie. Maybe, it’s time to straighten up and fly right.