Jesus said … ‘If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:20)
Today the gospel presents us with a shortened section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus takes up the role of law-giver Moses had in the Old Testament, to teach his followers about the moral requirements of the Christian life. Here the Lord uses the word ‘righteousness’ to describe the many ways we relate to God and to one another, which in our translation is rendered as ‘virtue’. By virtues we understand those good habits and dispositions that we learn to practice throughout the course of life and that help us to flourish as individuals. So, for example, justice is a virtue, insofar as it regulates the way in which each of us deals with others, including with God; and courage (or fortitude) is also a virtue because through it we learn to calm our fears, and stand our ground should difficulties arise. As we practice virtues we get better at them, and they allow us to grow to maturity as human beings.
Now, as Jesus addresses his disciples, there are many faithful and God-fearing people among the Pharisees and the scribes he seems to criticise, but Jesus tells his followers to be morally better, in a sense, than them saying, “If your good habits go no deeper that these people, you cannot have part in the Kingdom heaven.” And this teaching is also valid for us today. We live in a multicultural society where we are surrounded by good people of every belief and none; people who act justly, are law-abiding, and do good where they can. But Jesus asks us to be better than them in the way we live out our faith. But better how?
I guess one way of looking at it could be to engage in a race to always reach the moral high ground when relating to nonbelievers. And certainly, our gospel reading gives us plenty of examples of moral behaviour which are definitely more demanding than both the Old Testament law and our civil laws (such as equating anger to murder). But somehow I do not think that such a literal interpretation of the gospel would provide us with the full meaning of what Jesus is teaching us here. The Lord asks for our good habits to go deeper, to become more profound and engrained ways of living, rather than just being more diligent in doing box-ticking exercise about what we can and can’t do as Christians.
Then, how can the ways we relate to others become a living expression of our faith? The answer is through love – or as it is properly called, through charity, which is the fire of divine love that has been kindled in our hearts through the grace of believing. Charity puts us in a special relationship with God and with others which must replace whatever self-centred idea society might have of them. Through charity we know God no longer as a despotic figure whom we must appease with our good conduct, but we look at him in confidence as the Father of mercy, the one who has loved us in Jesus Christ form all eternity. Through charity other people are no longer means to satisfy our selfishness, nor things we can dispose of whenever we feel like it. Instead charity helps us to see that everyone is a fellow creature, moulded, like us, in the image of God, and thus worth every possible care and commitment.
So, we can interpret our gospel reading as a newer, stricter version of the law to which we must abide in order to be saved; or we can interpret it as a call, a command from the Lord to practice righteousness and virtue in the light of his love for us. The guidance of charity will always ask us to go the extra mile for God and for other people. Charity will make our Christian life into a generous and joyful response to God, and it will allow us to flourish as creature fit for the Kingdom of heaven. But in order to have the courage to be guided by the fire of charity we must pray.
Lord, teach me to be generous.Teach me to serve you as you deserve;to [love and to] give and not to count the cost,to fight and not to heed the wounds,to toil and not to seek for rest,to labour and not to ask for reward,save that of knowing that I do your will.