“The New Law and the Grace of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 5:17-37) 2/16/2020
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. Jesus, then, gives us the New Law in the Sermon on the Mount. We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount during these early Sundays of Ordinary Time this year.
So how does the New Law that Jesus gives us differ from the Old Law? In our Gospel today Jesus says our righteous must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Does this mean we have more laws to fulfill than they did? Does this mean we have to be more exacting than these very rigorous men?
Jesus brings us the New Law and it’s different from the Old Law not just in the content. It’s not that there are more commands to fulfill or that we need to be more exacting than the Scribes and Pharisees. There’s something more fundamental and decisive at play here.
St Thomas Aquinas asks about the difference between the Old Law and the New Law. Here is the main difference, in Aquinas’ words: “the Law of the New Covenant is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ.” Furthermore, “the New Law is instilled in the heart” (I-II, q 106, a 1). St Augustine says the same thing.
So for Aquinas and Augustine, the New Law is essentially the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts. The Sermon on the Mount, then, expresses what this grace of the Holy Spirit looks like when lived out. It tells us what actions flow from this grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts.
This is how our righteousness is to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Not necessarily by doing more things or being more exact than they were, but rather by living out the life of grace which transforms us interiorly as well as exteriorly. Our righteousness is to surpass mere external observance and reach to the interior of the heart.
So we heard in our Gospel that the Old Law said, “You shall not kill” but Jesus says we need to guard against even interior anger and hatred. The Old Law said, “You shall not commit adultery” but Jesus says whoever looks at another person lustfully has already started to do so interiorly. The New Law of Grace touches more deeply the interior aspects of our moral life. And we are able to live this out because the grace of the Holy Spirit is there to help us and transform us from within.
All this is reflected in the very structure of our Catechism of the Catholic Church. There are four sections: The Creed, the Sacraments, the Moral life, and Prayer. And what is the 3rd section on the moral life called? Is it called “Keeping the Commandments”? No, although this is part of it. Is it called “The Life of Virtue”? No, although this is part of it. The 3rd part on the Moral Life is called “Life in Christ.” “Life in Christ.” This is what’s central and fundamental: Christ living in us and his grace transforming our lives.
Another aspect of our Catechism also reflects this New Law of Grace. In some other catechisms the section on the Sacraments comes after the section on the Moral Life. This could give the impression that the Sacraments are one more thing we are obliged to do, another command to carry out. But our present catechism deliberately places the Sacraments before the Moral Life to highlight that the grace of the Sacraments empower us to live the moral life. The Sacraments empower us to live the life of Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount is about what our life in Christ should look like. And surely Jesus himself lived out his teachings better than anyone else. So, in a way, the Sermon on the Mount is a spiritual portrait of Jesus. As a result it is also a spiritual portrait of what Jesus’ followers should be. The ideals of the Sermon on the Mount are lofty because the model is Jesus himself. But by grace, we are given a share in the life of Jesus. Jesus has breathed his own Spirit into us in giving us the Holy Spirit. The New Law is this grace of the Holy Spirit living in us and transforming the interior dimensions of our heart.
St John Paul II considers Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and asks, Is it that the heart is accused? Is the heart accused by Jesus? John Paul II answers that it’s rather that the heart is called by Jesus to these high standards (TOB, p 302). Jesus gives us the grace to achieve what he calls us to. There is often struggle along the way but the grace of Christ is stronger. The life of Jesus triumphs over death.
A Coptic monk from Egypt, Matthew the Poor, who just died in 2006 notes, “God requires certain [high] stipulations for those whom He calls. However, the Lord is truly amazing; for though He stipulates very strict conditions that befit the high value of His call, He nonetheless secretly fulfills them for whom He calls!” (Sojourner, 27). We find such high standards in the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s about our life in Christ and Christ living in us. And so, Jesus brings to perfection our imperfect attempts. As long as we struggle on to fulfill the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings to perfection our efforts.
In this very Mass, Christ draws us into His own perfect offering to the Father, an offering that surpasses all we could accomplish on our own. In this holy sacrifice of the Mass, we offer our good deeds and moral efforts to the Father but even more than this, we share in the perfect offering of Christ. By grace, by our life in Christ, we share in the righteous that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees and all human effort, the righteous of Christ.