The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
"The Gospel of the Lord", I said, which means: This is God’s Good News for us. And you said, "Thanks be to God". But did you mean it? Did what I’ve just read sound like good news to you? Was it something you were thankful for? Or did it sound like a burden, like an impossible demand, like yet more pressure? Should I have said: "The Bad News of the Lord"?!
But of course, the Gospel is not bad news. So, where’s the good news in today’s reading? Today’s passage is actually just part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three whole chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel; it’s quite significant. And the good news in the Sermon on the Mount is that it holds up a vision of who you and I are called to become.
It’s not surprising if you and I feel greatly challenged and somewhat disturbed by the Gospel today because we haven’t quite lived up to the Sermon on the Mount. Because the only person who has fulfilled the Law perfectly is Jesus Christ himself. Only Christ has loved so perfectly that he doesn’t just fulfill the external demands of the Law but the purity and goodness of heart, the love, that animates the Law. For the Law, ultimately, is fulfilled by Love, and Christ is Love incarnate.
So, when Jesus presents the New Law today, his Law of Love, he is also in effect saying: “Come, follow me” (cf 19:21). For Jesus Christ is who you and I as Christians are called to become. Now, this sounds impossible, and if it were, then today’s reading would be bad news. But in fact it is good news precisely because it isn’t impossible. I grant you it is not easy. It will require sacrifice – we will have to take up our cross and follow him (cf Mk 16:24) – but it is not impossible.
As Our Lady was told, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37). And this is the point; here is the good news. Because of Christ’s Incarnation, God is with us; his grace is given us so that nothing will be impossible. So, if we co-operate with God’s grace then we will be re-made in the image and likeness of Christ; we will learn to love as he does, and so, fulfill Christ’s Law of Love. As St Thomas says: “What is primary in the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit, shown in faith working through love”. So, the good news today is that the Sermon on the Mount is a possibility because we have been given this grace of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it has become a reality in the lives of so many saints, and of countless other Christians whose lives of grace are still hidden. So, the vision that is held before us today by the Sermon on the Mount is the vision of Christian sanctity; of the triumph of God’s grace in the lives of his saints. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers says: “The purpose of the Sermon is to show us what the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in our lives here and now through his grace, if we respond to him with the Yes of faith, with the eagerness of hope, and with the availability of love”. Hence St Augustine has said that the Sermon on the Mount is “a perfect model for Christian living”.
And yet, to many people – even those who call themselves Christians – the Sermon on the Mount seems too hard, too unrealistic; an unlive-able ideal, especially in the 21st-century. Hence, many pressurize the Church to abandon Christ’s teachings found here and elsewhere, such as his teaching on divorce or the grave sinfulness of lust. But the Church doesn’t invent teachings, and if she did why would she choose such unpopular ones? In truth, the Church’s sole task is to faithfully hand on the Gospel she has received from Jesus Christ even when it is difficult to do so, even when people say these teachings are “irrelevant” or “outmoded” or, in our age, impossible.
But the New Law is only impossible if God’s grace is futile; if the Holy Spirit is powerless; if Christ is without Wisdom and Truth. And the Church can never say this. So, we Christians can never abandon Christ’s teaching.
Christianity, as we know it in the West, is dying. And I think one of the causes is a certain misconception of God and the moral life based principally on laws and obligations. Perhaps you recognize this caricature too? God is a Dictator, his laws and commandments arbitrary and arcane; the Church and her clergy are policemen who enforce God’s laws; and the moral life is about submitting our will to God’s will and laws, and not getting caught out. For from the late medieval period, laws and obligations became paramount, and the moral life became about duty and a gritted-teeth submission to God’s will.
In this worldview, for example, celibacy becomes a legal discipline that is imposed on priests and religious, sexual morality is reduced to what we can do without crossing the line, and religious observance concerned with getting away with the bare minimum.
But where is the charity in any of this, wherein the lover seeks to do the utmost out of a desire for Christ, the divine Lover? Where is the wisdom, whereby we learn from Christ who is Wisdom incarnate? As the Gospel acclamation, quoting the psalmist, says: “Teach me your paths, O God, lead me in your truth” (Ps 24:4f) – lead me in the abundant Way of Love that is Jesus Christ.
So, for centuries, a kind of Christianity preoccupied with laws, duties and moral obligations has, I think, led to a certain death; it has sapped the vitality of the Church. And now, that form of Christianity is dying. Why? Because this legalistic minimalism detaches us from Love, from Christ, who embodies and perfects the wisdom, truth, and goodness of God’s Law. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers said, “Because of its focus on obligations [we have become] detached… from everything that goes beyond legal imperatives: from the search for perfection…; from the interior mystical movement of the heart so closely linked to love; and from spirituality in general”. Hence, so many Catholics have looked elsewhere for meaning, and for spirituality and mysticism. Thus St Paul rightly says that “the written code kills” (2 Cor 3:6).
But, notice: it’s not that the Law is bad in itself. It’s our attitude to the Law that harms us. It’s a mere formal observance of the Law; empty lip-service; ritualistic going-through-the-motions that deadens us and kills the good in the Law. Many have forgotten what the Law is for. As the Code of Canon Law says: “the supreme law is the salvation of souls” (CIC 1752).
Hence, today’s Gospel reminds us that the Law will not pass away because it remains to accomplish in us a Christ-like love which saves us. The problem isn’t with the Law, as such, but with a minimalist attitude to the Law such that we don’t embrace the wisdom and good it expresses; so that it can’t lead to the generosity and magnanimity of love which always seeks more than the bare minimum formal requirements. If we seek to do the least, then we shall be “called least in the kingdom” (Mt 5:19). So, we’re challenged by the Gospel to embrace the fullness of the Law as Christ does, and so, “have life… abundantly”. (Jn 10:10)
However, with the coming of Christ, the Law is no longer principally found in a “written code” but in the person of Jesus Christ who is Love incarnate. So, we Christians learn to love, not from any book or text, as such, but from the living Word made flesh; from the communion of saints that is Christ’s Mystical Body; and from the Spirit whose grace teaches us Christ’s Law of Love (cf CCC 1972), and forms us in virtue. This Way, as St Paul says, “gives life” (cf 2 Cor 3:6) because we participate, through charity, in the eternal life of Jesus Christ.
So, as a certain form of Christianity dies, we hope for the resurrection promised by the New Evangelization which strives to convert our hearts so that we love and follow the person of Jesus Christ more perfectly. As Pope Benedict XVI said: “May this Year of Faith make our relationship with Christ the Lord increasingly firm, since only in him is there the certitude for looking to the future and the guarantee of an authentic and lasting love”.
“Others, to test him, sought from him a sign from heaven” (Lk 11:16). Just as in the wilderness, when Jesus encountered Satan and was tested, so the same Greek word is used again here; Jesus is being tested, tempted, not alone and in a secluded place, but now among the crowds, presumably in a town. And this is not the last time that the devil returns to tempt and test the Lord.
This dynamic of repeatedly being tested and tempted to vainglory, pride and power is important because it shows that Jesus has to make a conscious choice again and again to embrace his mission, to remain faithful to his Father’s call, to walk the way of the Cross for our salvation.
There is a certain theory, very popular in moral theology, called the ‘fundamental option’, which basically says that once we’ve made a radical commitment, a fundamentally free choice for God and to follow Christ, then it is unlikely, even if we were to commit morally grave acts such as murder or adultery, to change that orientation towards God. But this theory is dangerously flawed, and contradicts Scripture and the moral tradition of the Church. Because, as our First Reading reminds us, it is possible for a people who are radically committed to God in a Covenantal bond, to turn from him. And this happens because each sinful act we commit rejects God’s wisdom to some degree. We prefer our own wisdom, the allure of sin, the pressure of the crowds, our addictions and our emotions. And, so, we turn from God towards ourselves and the crowds. Hence, Jeremiah says: “They did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24).
Jesus’ rejection of the crowds’ temptation in today’s Gospel thus reminds us that in every moral decision that we make with freedom and knowledge, we have a genuine choice that has consequences for our moral orientation. We are formed by our deliberate actions either in God’s image, through grace, or in our own sinful image. So, we’re urged in our psalm response to listen to God’s voice “today”. In doing so, we reject Satan and his temptations, and we allow the Holy Spirit to lead and direct us. Hence, the Spirit, who is called “the finger of God” casts out the demons that would lead us astray. And the “kingdom of God”, or more properly, the rule of God comes upon us. Because when we reject sin and embrace God’s call, listening to his voice, to Christ his Living Word, and we turn towards him, then God’s rule, his reign of love, is “upon us”.
In this way, every time we affirm our fundamental “yes” to God, we are tested and strengthened by our moral decisions again and again to embrace our Christian vocation, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow Christ (cf Mt 16:24). But a heart that is divided cannot stand. So, if today we should hear the Lord’s voice, let us not harden our hearts to him (cf Ps 94:8).
“What shall we do?” Various groups of people go to John the Baptist to ask him for moral instruction because they recognize his wisdom and moral authority. In every age people have gone to ask their religious preachers and sages for moral guidance: “What shall we do?” Many of the world’s religions offer responses to this fundamental question on how we should order our lives, how we can live well as human beings. So, every religion and culture has its great moral teachers: Confucius, the Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, and today, John the Baptist, who was the last and greatest of God’s prophets.
Many people would number Jesus Christ among the world’s great moral teachers. But we shouldn’t – Christ is different. For Christianity, contrary to a commonplace popular belief, is not principally about being nice. It’s not primarily about following a set of rules and commandments, obeying laws and moralistic preaching. Tragically, this is what Christianity has often been reduced to, or this is how it’s been perceived, and perhaps, rejected, by very many. And it’s often been asserted that one doesn’t need religion to teach morality. That’s arguable, but even if it were true, we would still need Jesus Christ.
Because, leaving aside morality, Jesus Christ comes first of all as the Redeemer and Saviour of every human person. He is the salvation we are all equally in need of, and the perfection of what Jesus gives us, namely, eternal life in union with the Holy Trinity, is something that can only ever be achieved by his grace and never by our own human efforts or merit. So, Jesus comes to give us eternal happiness, and he does so because he loves us. To all who freely accept this gift of grace, Christ becomes their unique source of joy. Hence, we Christians are exhorted by St Paul and today’s Gaudete Sunday liturgy to rejoice.
We rejoice because of who we are in Jesus Christ. For our faith is not principally about observing moral values, or the gritted-teeth keeping of laws, or being good for fear of a policeman God. It’s not principally about what we shall do, and more about who we shall be. For Jesus comes to establish a new relationship between us and God. Through him, by the grace given in baptism, we can enter into Jesus’ own relationship with God. So, we can also dare to call God Abba, Father; we have been reborn in the Holy Spirit as daughters and sons of God in the Son of God. This new relationship of filial love between God and Man that Jesus offers all people is something we do not – and cannot – earn. It is just freely given out of gratuitous love for us. But it’s up to us to accept this pure gift, this grace.
Compared to the great empires of Egypt, Assyria, Rome and Babylon that surrounded it, and at times, overwhelmed it, Israel could never have been considered a “great nation”. And yet, when Moses gives the Law revealed by God on Sinai to Israel, he says: “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”. Because the greatness of God’s people, of his holy nation, is not found in their military might, or cultural riches, or economic power. No, Israel’s greatness is found in her wisdom and understanding of the Truth.
And the wisdom that God’s people possess is not theirs by right but a gift. Adam and Eve had snatched the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil for themselves, and so got things so terribly wrong, because they still needed to be taught how to choose wisely according to the knowledge of good and evil they had taken. Lacking such instruction, and indeed, having rejected God’s command, they led humanity astray. So, now God is teaching his children by his Law, so that they can wisely walk in his ways, and have life. So, God’s Law, the Ten Commandments, is a gift. It is an expression of divine wisdom that ultimately leads to Man’s flourishing and happiness; it reveals and directs the natural desire for the good and true that is already written in Man’s heart.
Occasionally I’ve had to hang things on the wall using a nail and hammer. And I’m not particularly good at this… Imagine me trying to hammer a nail into the wall, and I find the wall is somewhat unyielding, and my aim slips. So, I make a small indentation below the point that I wanted. I’ve missed the mark, and in fact, I find that I’ve made an indentation in a softer part of the plaster. So, I keep hitting that point, deciding to settle for that lower position instead. The picture, when it’s hung here, isn’t quite where it should be, but I convince myself it’s fine. And in fact, if I’m to live with myself and my weakness, I soon convince myself that it’s what I wanted in the first place, and indeed, everyone else should think so too.
I use this to illustrate how sin affects us as individuals, and also its effect on society. Sin is missing the mark, and when we find that the good and true is a little hard, somewhat unyielding, our aim slips. Instead of persevering, and finding the right tools to hit the hard spot, we may take the easier way, and persist in missing the mark. So, we persist in sin. And then we soon convince ourselves that perhaps that is the best way forward anyway – there’s no such thing as the right place to hang the picture, or no better way of behaving, and so on. So, truth is relativized, such that I become the sole arbiter of right and wrong. And anyone who disagrees has to be convinced otherwise, or silenced.
"The Lord’s way is not fair!" (Ezeziel 18:25). It would seem so, if one thinks that the moral life is some kind of tally of individual deeds, that it is about the legalistic keeping of laws and commandments, or even, of Lenten penances. Then, it would seem unfair that a man who has racked up a hundred points worth of good deeds should lose them all because he slipped up and committed just one bad deed.
But Ezekiel is speaking of something much more fundamental about morality that reaches to the heart of who the person is. For the virtuous man doesn’t need to strive to be virtuous. He acts patiently, kindly, courageously (and so on) because he is patient, kind, and brave; this is who he is. Virtue, then, for the virtuous, is the most natural thing. So, when Ezekiel considers the righteous man who “turns away from virtue to commit iniquity” (Ezekiel 18:26) he means effectively a radical change in who that person is.