7th Sunday of Ordinary Time
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. (Lv. 19:1)
When Jesus said that unless our righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of God (Mt. 5:20), what exactly was he talking about? The word “righteousness” cannot simply be understood in terms of the moral life, although this is obviously a fundamental meaning when it is applied to us. Certainly we must be righteous in our conduct to enter the Kingdom of God, and it must be with a righteousness that surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees. But the meaning of this saying of Jesus cannot be limited simply to the moral life as such, for the same word “righteousness” is applied to God, and we can hardly speak of God’s good moral life as if God were one of us. No, righteousness and holiness are profoundly linked in reference to God, where holiness points to the absolute purity of the divine nature, which is strictly eternal, while righteousness applied to God refers to the temporal effects God producers in his rational creatures, perfections that flow from and manifests God’s own holiness. We might say that divine righteousness can be understood as divine holiness in action.
Looking at this saying of Jesus about our righteousness in this light, we can see how His admonition in Matthew, which comes in the same chapter 5 that we are reading today, connects with the saying from Leviticus in the first reading, “Be Holy for I am holy,” and the final saying of Jesus in today’s Gospel, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The righteousness that surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees is the right conduct that flows from and manifests the holiness that God communicates to us in Baptism, the holiness of grace that sanctifies us first, and then enables us to sanctify our conduct with God’s great gifts. We must be holy says Leviticus because God is holy, and we must be perfect, says Jesus, because God is perfect, and why? This is so simply because God is our true final destiny, and to be intimately united with God in His Kingdom, we must first share in His holiness and be made perfect by His grace which transforms us and our works. It is God who makes us holy with His Grace, and it is God whose grace enables us to live a truly holy life by His grace, a supernaturally good life that far surpasses the merely ethical goodness of the natural world.
We sense and begin to see that transcendent righteousness of life, that holiness makes possible and which in turn is rewarded with ever greater holiness by God, in the great demands of the Sermon on the Mount. This is not simply an ethical treatise but a laying out of the kind of righteous conduct that flows not simply from obedience to a law but from the holiness of God which is communicated to the baptized.
Just listen to Jesus’ words. If you merely love those who love you, what reward, what credit, is there in that for you? And if you merely do good to those who do good to you, what credit, reward, is there for you in that? The clear point he is making is that while these are good acts of human love and human righteousness, still in themselves they merit nothing as far as God’s Kingdom is concerned. They are merely natural acts – like eating – no one would think they deserve a reward because they do something that is simply part of their natural inclination to eat? And so with this kind of natural love and doing good, it is just a natural response to someone showing love for us. It would be unnatural if we did not respond in kind, but when we do respond, surely we cannot expect a reward for doing what comes naturally to man, even, as Jesus says, to sinners.
We know that even the worst criminals can love someone in these circumstances, at least their own mother or a close friend who loves them, and we know that they will even sometimes be generous toward others whom they pity. But does that mean that this kind of love and doing good works merits the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus says no, and He points to the kind of love and doing of good that does merit a heavenly reward from God. He says rather shocking things like “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” It doesn’t take much reflection to see that this commandment of Jesus refers us to another kind of life altogether, a way of life far surpassing a merely natural life. This command refers likewise to another kind of love, another kind of forgiveness, and another kind of generosity that embraces even our worst enemies. Can we possibly hesitate to recognize that this new life and new love that He commands is something truly supernatural, something beyond our natural way of life, even our very power to ever live this way?
The Christian life is in fact something both truly natural and truly supernatural at the same time. It is truly natural in that we use our natural powers of mind and free will to live this new life, but it is also something truly supernatural in that we use these natural powers in a way that is beyond their natural endowments. We are called to live and to love in a way that mere mortals are incapable of naturally speaking. Only with God’s supernatural life in our souls, operating in our personal faculties can our natural power of intelligence understand and accept, in faith, this new way of life and its norms of conduct – love your enemies, do good to those who do evil to you. And only with God’s supernatural life in our souls, can we freely choose to live this new life, choose to love in this higher way, to be good in this higher way, to be generous toward all in this utterly supernatural way. Indeed, only with this new supernatural life present in our souls, and only with the constant assistance of God’s assisting grace, can we come to keep his natural law faithfully, his ten commandments, and develop a true life of consistent virtue and goodness. But to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, etc., this absolutely cannot be done at all without His grace, and without His love in our hearts.
“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These are the keys that unlock the meaning and possibility of the new life proposed in the Sermon on the Mount. It is His Life. It can truly be ours.