It seems that Jesus’ opponents were religious people. They criticized Jesus because He disregarded some of their practices. He healed the sick on the Sabbath, even though no one was supposed to work on the Sabbath. He didn’t perform the traditional cleaning of cups and dishes. They were shocked because he ate with people who didn’t observe the Law.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were convinced that if you were not to break the Law, you had to avoid everything that might lead to breaking the Law, the heart of which was the ten commandments. If you were to observe the Sabbath, you should know how far you could walk on the Sabbath or to what extent preparing food violated the Sabbath rest. For this purpose, secondary rules developed that were meant to act as a “hedge around the Law, ” to protect one from breaking the commandments.
With time the secondary rules assumed their own importance. Jesus was criticized for opposing the Law. Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In fact, Jesus was not throwing away the commandments. He was saying that it is not enough to keep them externally but we have to keep to keep them internally. It is not enough not to kill but we cannot speak abusively to others or even to think evil thoughts about others. It is not enough not to commit fornication we should not even we giving in to sexual phantasies about others.
Jesus is not making keeping the commandments easier. He is making it harder. It is easier to be washing cups and not walking far on the Sabbath than to do something about the angry and lusting thoughts. Jesus is getting to the heart of religion, teaching us to love God with our whole hearts, our whole souls, our whole strength and mind and to love our neighbors in a good way.
Jesus’ teaching is completely the opposite of what you see on television and in videos and on the internet and on the way that many people talk. To choose to live in a chaste way and as a peacemaker is completely opposite of so much that is being communicated.
Jesus is teaching us to love others in a good way. We often hear the two words, “love” and “sex” used to getter, so people speak of “making love,” but it really isn’t love. It is using people because it is sex without any commitment to the other person. Jesus is not against sex. In a beautiful passage, the book of Genesis says, “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one body.” Jesus says, “What God has brought together, let no one separate.”
So what are young people supposed to do until they actually find the right person and make that life commitment to them? All of us are called by Jesus to love others in a good way. But how do we control our impulses because the sexual drive and the power of anger are so strong?
According to the Gospels, Jesus resisted social pressure to regard secondary rules with the same importance as the commandments. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that Jesus refused “to abstain from doing even works of kindness on the Sabbath, which was contrary to the intention of the Law” (1a2ae. 107, 2, ad 3).
As we can see in today’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asserted that the Commandments must be kept. St. Thomas Aquinas affirms that Jesus fulfilled the Law “by explaining the true sense of the Law” (1a2ae. 107, 2). He went further than the Law itself because He insisted that the Commandments must be kept from the inside out, including our interior thoughts and dispositions (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
It is not enough not to kill, we should not hate or grow angry. It is not enough not to commit adultery, we should not lust interiorly. Thomas explains:
The Law fixed a limit to revenge, by forbidding men to seek vengeance unreasonably: whereas Our Lord deprived them of vengeance more completely by commanding them to abstain from it altogether. With regard to hatred of one’s enemies, He dispelled the false interpretation… by admonishing us to hate, not the person, but his sin… (1a2ae. 107, 2).
Has Jesus made keeping the commandments more difficult? Thomas comments: “The precepts of the New Law are more burdensome than those of the Old; because the New Law prohibits certain interior movements of the soul, which were not expressly forbidden in the Old Law in all cases” (1a2ae. 107, 4).
Is it actually possible not to be angry or to hate or not to feel sexual attractions? Controlling our thoughts or feelings doesn’t come automatically. Thomas distinguishes between these feelings that are “a movement of the mind, which is either sudden or with deliberation” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew). We are less responsible for spontaneous thoughts or feelings but we are responsible if we nurture them with deliberation.
St. Thomas believes that we are able to give order to the spontaneous thoughts and feelings by developing good habits, which are the virtues. According to Thomas, virtue enables believers to act well: “to act thus is difficult for a man without virtue but through virtue it becomes easy for him” (1a2ae. 107, 4).
Some virtues are simply given by God. Many of the virtues, similar to other habits, are built up by repeating an action. Of course, we need God’s help in repeating these actions as well. When we build up the virtues, we act in a virtuous way, “promptly and with pleasure” (1a2ae. 107, 4).
One way of confirming the habit of virtuous actions is to take responsibility when we have acted otherwise. Thomas echoes Augustine’s advice that we prepare to approach God at the altar of the church or at the altar of our heart, “by prostrating yourself humbly in the presence of the One to whom you are about to offer; if he [the injured person] is present, he must be returned to your love by seeking pardon from him” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas recognizes that the person may not have offended us justly: “He does not add ‘justly’, He makes it plain that even the one who suffered the injury ought to seek friendship (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas recalls the words of both the Old and New Testaments: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Lv 19:17) and “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26).
For Thomas, we need to be concerned about the effect that harboring negative feelings has on ourselves: “… not only because we harm the neighbor, but because we give the unclean spirits room within us for doing what they will” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas turns to the advice of St. John Chrysostom: “If you have offended by thought, be reconciled by thought; if by words, by words; if by deeds, by deeds” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew). At times, we need to apologize by words, at times by our actions but, at other times, we need to make peace in our thoughts when we have sinned against another by thought.
According to Thomas, the New Law, given by Jesus, is not a revised list of updated regulations but an inner principle that enables us to do good. Thomas states: “The New Law consists chiefly in the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is shown forth by faith that works in love” (1a2ae. 106, 1, 2; 108, 1).
Ultimately, we need to pray for a greater love because love enables us to act in a good way. Thomas frequently returns to Augustine’s explanation of 1 John 5:3: “His commandments are not heavy.” Augustine wrote: ”They are not heavy to the man who loves; whereas they are a burden to him who loves not.”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/