In these weeks of Ordinary Time before the season of Lent begins, the Sunday Gospel comes from Saint Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Carta of Christianity. The French author Francois Mauriac once said: Those who have never read the Sermon on the Mount cannot grasp what Christianity is all about.
In the Gospel this coming Sunday, we will hear the following words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
The Catechism teaches us that the Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues (CCC 1968).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives examples of how His Law, the Law of the Gospel, fulfills the commandments of the Old Law. One example that Jesus gives is the fifth commandment: You shall not kill. Our Lord adds to this the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. And then He goes even further, asking His disciples to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. Jesus is calling us on a moral and spiritual journey towards holiness, the perfection of love.
Another example Jesus gives is the sixth commandment: You shall not commit adultery. Jesus calls us to more, to the virtue of chastity: But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Our Lord insists on the conversion of our hearts. This happens through the grace of the Holy Spirit and our cooperation with that grace. We receive this grace in the sacraments. I think particularly of the need we have for the Holy Eucharist which strengthens us to live the Law of the Gospel. And the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, which not only restores us to God’s grace, but also helps us to progress in the life of the Spirit.
Saint Augustine thought that when he became a Christian, he would attain the life proposed in the Sermon on the Mount. He thought that by receiving Baptism and the Eucharist, he would live the ideals of Christ perfectly. He learned later that he was mistaken. In reflecting on this change in Augustine’s thinking, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote: “Only Christ himself truly and completely accomplishes the Sermon on the Mount. We always need to be washed by Christ, who washes our feet, and be renewed by him. We need permanent conversion. Until the end we need this humility that recognizes that we are sinners journeying along, until the Lord gives us his hand definitively and introduces us into eternal life.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposes to us a new way of life. He gives us a charter of Christian life. In the qualities of discipleship He describes, we see the image of Jesus Himself. He is teaching us to model our lives on his own. He is the Light of the World. At the same time, recall last Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus says to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: You are the light of the world. We are light when we live with the mind and the heart of Christ. This is what Jesus teaches us to do in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us the way to life, the path to true happiness. The Sermon on the Mount describes for us the path that leads to the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus has given us what Blessed John Paul II called “a code of Christian holiness.” He exhorts us to a perfection modeled on that of God Himself: You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Jesus, the Son, reflects most fully this perfection of the Father. United with Him as His brothers and sisters, this is our vocation as well. As the Second Vatican Council taught: All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.
Saint Augustine wrote: If anyone should meditate with devotion and perspicacity on the sermon our Lord gave on the mount, as we read in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, he will doubtless find there… the perfect way of the Christian life. This sermon contains all the precepts needed to shape one’s life.
It may be helpful in these weeks before Lent to consider our Lenten resolutions in relation to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. What prayers and sacrifices will help us to grow in our Christian life, in holiness, in our ongoing conversion to Christ?
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