If the goal of human living is to love God and neighbour then the negative precepts of the Ten Commandments by themselves do not get us to that goal. If my love for my wife consists mainly in not murdering her, lying to her or commiting adultery then no one would say that such love is a many-splendoured thing.
Likewise, if my love for God consists in avoiding false gods, not taking his name in vain and going to church on Sunday then I'm not a likely candidate for the ranks of the great saints.
Yet, when Jesus walked among us, this is the sort of "love" he found. People were careful not to violate the law, but they did not always strive to live out the values which underlie the law.
So Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. In it, he extolled poverty of spirit and turning the other cheek. He says to let no one see you fasting, giving alms and praying. He exhorts his followers to be salt of the earth and light of the world. Jesus says we should love those who persecute us and if part of one's body causes one to sin then he should cut it off. "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," he concludes (Matthew 5:48).
The Sermon on the Mount has provided a big problem for preachers. It goes way beyond the respectable morality of paying your taxes on time and making sure the dog doesn't bark at night. It calls us to live heroically to an extent that is way beyond our ability.
Some scholars will tell us that Semitic teachers in Jesus' time loved to make a point by exaggerating. In effect, they say, "That ol' Jesus, he was quite a kidder, wasn't he?" Well, if that's the case, the Sermon on the Mount, the supposed cornerstone of Christian living, boils down to something like, "Do the best you can."
Frankly, I suspect Jesus was not exaggerating and that he really does want his followers, all his followers, to live in the way he described in those three chapters of Matthew's Gospel. That realization only deepens the problem. How am I to "be perfect" as God is perfect? The disciples themselves asked that question. "But Jesus looked at them and said, 'For mortals, it is impossible, but for God all things are possible'" (Matthew 19:26).
That answer provides the key to the New Law. On our own ken, we can't possibly live up to its demands. But with faith and the help of the Holy Spirit living in us, all things are possible.
In one sense, the New Law adds few, if any, commands to the Old. But Christian morality is not primarily about commands; it is about virtue. It cleans the inside of the cup as well as the outside. It calls us to more than respectable behaviour; it calls us to circumcise our hearts.
Christian morality is a demanding morality but not in the oft-believed sense that "the Church" imposes heavy burdens which sap the life out of our veins. Rather, we are called to expunge all vain desires from our hearts so that we might be free to live in God's love. We are called to fullness of life.
That doesn't mean life is a constant party; it means "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).
Faith leads us to humility. It enables us to see how small and powerless we are before God. That realization leads us not to despair or to a poor self-image, but to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit acting through us. It leads us to ask God to give us his Spirit, to pray constantly, to frequent the sacraments and to work tirelessly in eradicating the false desires to which we are prone.
Natural law, and its expression in the Ten Commandments, is a good thing. It points us away from evil. Its weakness is "the yeast of the Pharisees" -- the pride-filled belief that by obeying the precepts of the law we have become good. But no one is good except God . . . and those in whom God lives.
The Old Law needs to be transformed, brought to fulfilment, perfected. It needs the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only must evil be avoided, but good must be done. And good can only be done if we are brought to share in the saving mystery of Christ's Paschal sacrifice. Only then will we be able to live the heroic life to which the Gospel calls us.
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