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In the Book of Psalms -- Psalm 147 to be precise -- one of the great boasts of God's people is that: "He has proclaimed His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not done this for any other nation; His ordinances He has not made known to them." The Jews, therefore, had the advantage over all other peoples because they had the Mosaic Law, and knew just what God expected of them. The Law was finely detailed, occupying most of the four books of the Bible that follow Genesis -- more than just the Ten Commandments we normally think of, the Mosaic Law made provision for virtually every aspect of Jewish life -- from the government of the people and its system of justice and charity, the conduct of agriculture, to marriage and the family, to medicine, and even down to what one might eat and drink -- it was all there.
The observant Jew was cautious indeed to observe the Law. In a number of cases, he even observed a "hedge around the law" -- being careful not to even come close to violating it. If, for example, the Law prescribed 40 lashes as the punishment for a crime, no more than 39 would be administered, for fear of losing count. The "Sabbath day's journey" was always a few less paces than the Law allowed. Many items in the Law were things not to be done -- "thou shalt not!" -- so the faithful Jew made sure that he did none of them.
But an instruction of ten thousand "thou shalt nots" has got to be a pretty difficult thing to follow. Certainly, it would require a prodigious memory, and very careful attention to detail. At Jerusalem, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter spoke from the experience of his forebears as to the difficulty of keeping the Law in its complexity, as did Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans.2 And, indeed our Lord's point in today's Gospel addresses this difficulty square on.
The part that we read at Mass is but a section of what our Lord had to say to His followers in His "Sermon on the Mount."3 If at all possible, you ought to read the rest of the chapter when you go home today -- it is the fifth chapter of Matthew''s Gospel (and it wouldn't hurt to read six and seven as well). Our Lord is not saying that the Mosaic Law is to be done away with -- "I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill the Law.... whoever does away with one of these least commandments shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven."4 The ceremonial precepts of the Old Law would be replaced, of course, but the Moral Law will continue until the end of time -- it has to, for without it mankind would live in chaos. But what we see today, and in the rest of this section of the Gospel, is a shift of emphasis -- the Moral Law continues, but is best observed with an emphasis on the virtues, rather than on the vices.
You just heard our Lord remind us that the law says "thou shalt not kill," but go on to speak about the need for mildness and charity, even towards our enemies. Obviously, if we concentrate on virtues like mildness and charity, we will be extremely unlikely to ever be guilty of murder or any other violent act.
He does the same thing with regard to the sixth commandment, "thou shalt not commit adultery -- here again His emphasis is on the virtues: observe chastity in all things, and adultery will be unheard of -- don't even look at one who is an occcasion of sin.
And He does the same with the commandment, "thou shalt not bear false witness." If our "yes is always yes," and our "no is always no" -- if we have, in other words, a reputation for always telling the truth, and dealing honestly in all matters -- if we always follow the virtues of honesty, it is unlikely that we will pursue the vice of lying.
Even though the Mosaic Law may have permitted "an eye for an eye" (actually, it was prohibiting "two eyes for one eye"), those who pursue virtue will never be tempted to revenge, even where it might be legally allowed. "Turning the other cheek" or "going the extra mile" is just another way of promoting liberality of virtue. If we habitually give a little more of ourselves than is required, and seek a little less than is required in return, it is again very unlikely that we will ever be moved to seek the vengeance that is God's alone.
Our Lord is counseling nothing less than perfection, but He is also showing us the path of least resistance to achieve that perfection. If our "moral compass" is oriented toward nothing more than avoiding sin, we will have a difficult time indeed. But if it is oriented toward living the virtues, it will become considerably easier. In practice, that will take some effort on our part. It means making a "conversion of heart and manners" for most of us. It means rising above the environment in which we live, detaching ourselves from the enjoyment our world takes from avarice, and immodesty, from unnecessary violence, and false pretensions to greatness. It means detachment from the "glitzy" things around us, even though these appear to be superficially important. It means "being," as they say, "in the world, but not of the world."
Our Lord has given us this lofty goal of perfection -- but He has also given us the path to follow in order to become perfect. "You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect."
"Blessed are the poor in spirit.... the meek.... those who mourn.... those who hunger and thirst for justice.... the merciful.... the clean of heart.... the peacemakers.... those who undergo persecution for justice' sake... " and for God's sake. Blessed are those who pursue the virtues of God, rather than the vices of the Devil -- blessed are those who would be perfect.