Moral Life and Holiness

6th Sunday of ordinary time

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. [Matt 5:20]

Some time ago I was watching the news, and a young woman was being interviewed and she was explaining her own subjective moral system to the world. She proposed with no shame that just because a married man watches pornography on the Internet, or conducts an immoral affair with another woman over the Internet, does not mean he is committing adultery – no one thinks that, she said. I was waiting for the other woman, a good Christian lady to reply, “except for Jesus Christ that is.” But that reply never came, and then I realized she was probably a Catholic and might not be all that well versed in the Scriptures. How I wished she had been a bible protestant believer that day!
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus preaching a number of things that will drive a modern relativist up the wall. Jesus warns that even our anger can make us liable to God’s judgement, and He says that really abusive language can land one in hell, i.e. “liable to fiery Gehenna.” He also says that one who marries a divorced woman is guilty of adultery, no exceptions given, and that the man who divorces his wife bears the guilt of his divorced spouse’s adultery should she attempt a second marriage. That is Jesus, the beloved speaking not some rigid modern preacher.
In between his warning about anger and divorce, he speaks about the seriousness of lust in the heart. Jesus states quite clearly that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed the sin of adultery in his heart.” This is quite consistent with His moral teaching where he teaches that all morality has it’s true roots in the human heart. Jesus, unlike his Pharisee critucs, insists that all sin originates in the heart or soul, that is, in man’s thoughts, intentions and free choices, just as does every good act of human virtue. It is not just the external physical act, like murder, that is sinful, but the act of hate that originates in the human heart and leads to murder. This internal act of hate, if freely entertained, is gravely sinful, just like an act of murder. Likewise, the internal act of lust for a married woman, if freely chosen and entertained, is gravely sinful, mental adultery. God condemns both sins, the internal adultery and the external one. Thus any man who lusts after a woman in his heart, or vice versa, has already committed a mortal sin.
One of the reasons Jesus came into conflict with certain Scribes and Pharisees was precisely because he demanded a moral life that went beyond merely avoiding the actual physical sins in external actions. Jesus taught that the moral life is deeply rooted in the human person’s soul precisely because the human person is more than just a body. Moral good and moral evil are not to be identified with only the external acts of man. Good and evil originate in the inner sanctuary of man’s soul, in man’s thoughts and in man’s free choices. If in this inner sanctuary of the human soul man chooses to do evil, his will has already embraced the evil chosen, and it has by that fact alone, by that free choice, become evil and committed a true sin, even if the external act is never carried out. So Jesus teaches us that the human person is made either good or evil in the first place by the act of his free will, and only in the second instance by his external acts carrying out that choice.
Many scribes and pharisees, on the other hand, like the young lady on the evening news, and so many other people today, restrict the moral life to the purely external world, external actions, and they do not understand the true origins of good and evil in the human soul. Thus they end up with a very shallow morality and are so blinded as to end up calling good evil and evil good. When we misunderstand the commandments or reject some of the commandments, we end up in a swamp of moral relativsm.
Moreover, this shallow modern moral thinking also blinds its adherents to the true depths of the human person, to both the transcendent nature of the human soul and authentic human freedom. Jesus alone fully understands the depths of the human soul and the human person (Jn. 2:24), and thus He teaches the true morality that is fundamentally located in the interior of man’s soul, in his human mind and human freedom. That is the first reason why he warned us in today’s Gospel that our moral life must not remain on the surface of human nature and activity: I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
However, when Jesus said our moral goodness, our holiness, must surpass that of the scribes and pharisees , he was not just speaking about the moral life alone. Nor was Jesus suggesting that the moral life of these Scribes and Pharisees was totally evil. That would make his statement about surpassing their holiness a trite statement of what is obvious. What Jesus was suggesting was not that their moral lives were always evil, but that their approach to the moral life did not go far enough. Christians have to go beyond simply avoiding evil in their external acts. They must likewise avoid evil thoughts, desires and intentions that arise in the human soul. Christian morality, the morality that corresponds to the true dignityand transcendence of the human person, has to embrace the interior man as well as his external actions. Man, to be fully man, must be pure of heart.
So, the Christian life and holiness Jesus speaks about as surpassing, does not simply include the moral life. True, our moral life must surpass the moral system of the Scribes and Pharisees, but holiness involves much more than just the moral life. The Scribes and Pharisees taught that man’s holiness was also fundemantally something external, produced through one’s own external actions. Man makes himself holy by leading an externally good life of moral and religious observances.
Jesus, on the other hand, taught that holiness was not simply the result of the good moral life, for the good moral life itself was made possible by the very holiness, or grace, that was not the product of man’s activity, but of God’s. In short, holiness is not simply the result of a good moral life, being a good moral person. Indeed we may say that holiness is the State of Grace, that is, a gift that we first receive from God, by faith and Baptism, and this gift is what makes the good moral life possible. Holiness first descends upon us from above as a gratuitous form of supernatural life. It is in fact simply God’s life descending upon man as a pure gift from God.
Thus holiness is something truly supernatural, not natural, and that is why we cannot produce it ourselves, but only receive it as gift. Then, and only secondarily, can we in any true sense merit even greater holiness by our good deeds, which are made possibe and meritorious by this very grace. Without grace, then, we will not be able to integrally fulfill even the moral law, and thus be unable to merit this supernatural holiness. It is God’s holiness, present in Grace, that enables us to fulfill the moral law and thus to merit further graces of holiness. Thus, once again we can see what Jesus means when he says: I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The moral life and human holiness then are to be understood as something beyond mere human nature and it’s capacities to do good things. The Scribes and Pharisees did not understand that holiness was something truly supernatural, nor did they understand that the moral life is fundamentally something that has it’s deepest origins with man. That’s why they thought they could fulfill the moral law by their own free will – because for them it meant just avoiding the sinful external action and become holy on theri own. But if morality is extended to the depths of the human heart, it becomes rather obvious how impossible it is for fallen man to completely fulfill the law of God.
The Psalms also teach us what a torturous thing is the human heart, and what great depths there are to man. It’s clear that if the moral life reaches into those depths, then man clearly needs help from above, lots of help, just to be good, let alone to be holy. But we Christians do in fat believe that God has given us this help, precisely by giving us a share in his holiness, and it is this gift of His grace that gives us the hope that, with such grace, we can, after all, live the life Jesus proposes in the Sermon on the mount, and acquire a holiness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, the holiness necessary for us to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
That is the reason we come back to this sacred place week after week. We know we need to be nourished from this altar with the Bread of Life. For we know just how far the holiness demanded for the kingdom of heaven utterly surpasses our human nature and our capacity to lead a good moral life, even in the State of Grace. And so, we come to drink from the very source of holiness, to receive His grace and power so we can continue the struggle to live as he commands us in the Sermon on the Mount. Without this sacred banquet we would indeed be hopeless, and our best efforts to be holy would be futile. Only Christ can give us the grace necessary to enter His Kingdom in the holiness of God. Praise be Jesus Christ in whom dwells every good gift in Heaven and on the Earth, and in whom, as Paul says, God has prepared for us the kingdom and it’s glory, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him.


Categories: Homilies

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Littlemore Tracts

R. M. A. Pilon

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