A good deal of the celebrated Sermon on the Mount as presented by St. Matthew in his version of Christ’s grand instruction to his disciples seems to consist in a refinement of the Old Mosaic Law.
In fact, Jesus even quotes the Old Testament citing sometimes the Ten Commandments, “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery.” Other times Jesus quotes from other authoritative Scriptural sources, “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce” and “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.” Some too easily conclude that Jesus is simply offering a stricter version of traditional Jewish morality to his disciples and to the crowds who follow him.
The old law forbade killing; now Jesus forbids anger. The old law forbade adultery; now Jesus prohibits lustful thoughts. The old law had certain regulations regarding divorce; Jesus now bans divorce entirely. The old tradition banned false oaths; now Jesus says that oaths should not even be necessary so basic is the honesty of his disciples. So Jesus seems to be taking the old law of Moses and raising it a degree or two. Jesus teaches, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Clearly Jesus is demanding a higher standard.
Yet the righteousness demanded by Jesus, which will surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, is not simply a better keeping of the law. In fact, Jesus roundly condemns those who perform pious works but refuse inner renewal. “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” External observance of the law is praiseworthy and commendable. People and society would be a lot better off if the old Mosaic Law were to be entirely observed. Yet true faith, true commitment, true Christianity transcends correct conduct and is found in the orientation of the mind, heart and soul toward God. The will of the Father in heaven is the supreme law for Christians of which all Scriptural and ecclesiastical laws are a mere reflection. The true believer will certainly keep the law but he will go beyond the law to the person of the Father revealed through the law. While the law applies to certain situations in life and should certainly be observed, the will of God affects every aspect of life and should be discerned faithfully at every moment. The new morality is not written in a book no matter how sacred. The new morality becomes written on the heart of the man who has opened himself to the Father through Christ and his church. The new righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees since it is not the result of argument and debate but rather the fruit of faith and obedience.
Probably most readers of the Quiet Corner can recall those days when the worth of one’s Catholicism was judged chiefly by how well one kept the law. Mass every Sunday, fish every Friday, fasting from midnight, budget envelopes ready each week, chaste living before and after marriage, burial in consecrated ground, all six holy days of obligation observed, fasting during Lent – the law was clear and the law, admirably, was kept. This disciplined lifestyle frankly did little harm to the Catholic community. Some would argue that Catholics were better off under the law than under grace, as it were. Yet regimentation is not the summit of the Christian life. Rules and regulations are meant to be helpful. Jesus himself insisted that he had not come to do away with the law but rather to fulfill it. Still Catholics are called by Jesus to go beyond the law even as they observe the law. The righteousness of modern Catholics must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees just as the righteousness of the first Christians eventually did. Religion is not primarily the keeping of the law no matter how exalted. Religion first and foremost is an act of faith in God as Father with subsequent activity flowing from this inner commitment.
True religion is full of good works. It is very conscientious regarding the law. Remember the words of St. James, “Religion pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to help orphans and widows in their tribulations and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” St. James here is speaking of the fruits of religion. Jesus conversely is reminding his audience of the source of religion, namely, commitment to the will of the Father in heaven.