Gospel Reflection – The Commandments are guidelines to Virtues

The Commandments are guidelines to Virtues

Jesus proclaimed that his mission was to bring people back from evil ways to the reign of God in their lives.  His words were backed up by healing people and casting out evil spirits.

The charter of his kingdom was set out in the Sermon on the Mount.  Today’s Gospel (Matt 5:17-37) is about getting back to the true meaning of the commandments.

There are two ways of studying the commandments.  The first way is to regard them as rules which are to be analysed to see where there can be exceptions to the rule or where the basic rule needs to generate further sub-rules.  At the time of Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were the great legalists.  Hundreds of minute rules squeezed the joy out of religion.  Saint Paul admitted that in his earlier days as a Pharisee, he knew all these rules but could not find perfection in them.  But everything changed for him when he came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Commandments nurture virtues

Jesus made it clear that he did not come to abolish the basic Law of the commandments but to compete them by returning to their original purpose.  This is the second way to observe the commandments.  He asked the question, what is the virtue or ideal that this commandment is designed to protect and promote?  “For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes or Pharisees,” people will never understand the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

He chose three of the “Thou shalt not” commandments … Thou shalt not kill … or commit adultery … or bear false witness under oath.  “But I say to you” … and he proceeded to the ideal or virtue which each commandment was intended to nurture:  the sanctity of life; the sacredness of marriage; a kingdom of truth.

Looking for what is positive in the commandments reminds me of Father Hilary McDonagh who was our professor of Moral Theology.  He was scholar but came to us from years of pastoral work.   Our text books were in Latin.  When we came to the chapter, De Castitate, on chastity, he closed the book in disgust because there was only a half-page on the virtue and thirty pages on sins against chastity.  No wonder that there are still people confessing nothing else but impurity.  No mention of failing to feed the hungry or helping the poor.  Even in the chapter on the Eucharist, there was a paragraph in small print debating the number of serious sins a priest might commit in the celebration of Mass. And there are people who want to go back to pre-Vatican II days!

You must not kill

Any rule written in human words is open to interpretation.  Sharp legalists found areas where exceptions were allowed.  It became legitimate to stone a person for blasphemy, or for adultery, or if a son cursed his father.  Jesus was condemned to death by people who recited “Thou shalt not kill”!  He proclaimed the sacredness of life in a way that one should control anger, or avoid killing someone’s good name by name-calling, and working on reconciliation as soon as possible after falling out with somebody. Reconciliation should precede worship. This commandment was intended to protect the sacredness of life from the womb to the tomb. 

You must not commit adultery

Ages ago there were two monks on a journey when they came to a river where they would have to wade across.  On the river bank stood a young lady afraid of the water.  Promptly the young monk took her on his shoulder and brought her across.  At the end of the day,  the old monk said how shocked he was at what the young man had done.  But he replied that he had carried her across the river for a minute or so but the pious monk made such big an issue of impurity that he carried her in his mind for the rest of the day.  That is what a fixation does to the mind.  Uncontrolled lust commits adultery of the heart which is a contradiction of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God.”

The definition of adultery was very complicated and differed from place to place.

A man could issue a writ of divorce to his wife for a fairly trivial reason and he was then free to marry again.  But the wife was not free to remarry, so she was regarded as an adulteress if she remarried. There is a case in the Gospel where they tested Jesus whether he would join in stoning a so-called adulteress or not.  His reply was a score for equal rights for the woman.  The same law should apply to the husband as to the wife.  Jesus told the woman whom he had saved from being stoned to death, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go away and sin no more” (John 8:11). He protected the sanctity of marriage.  His focus was more on the virtue than on the sin.

You must not break your oath

 People go to court and swear on the bible, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and they haven’t the remotest intention of telling the truth.  It seems to have been more or less the same in Christ’s day.  He wanted his people to belong to a kingdom of truth. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean yes, and your ‘No’ mean no.

When Jesus was questioned by Pilate he replied, “I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice”.  Pilate replied distainfully, “What is truth?”  Truth is the first victim of war.  Marshal McLuhan, in 1967, published a book called The Medium is the Massage.  It seems that he foresaw how the electronic media of our time would radically change the meaning of truth through fake news, conspiracy theories, the power of slogans, the bait of a half-truth to cover up some lie, like claiming compassion to justify abortion.

One of the most important rules of life is the law of common sense.  Jesus restored the Commandments to be guidelines to the virtues of the Kingdom of God on earth.


Heavenly Father, thy kingdom come in respect for the sacredness of life, the sanctity of marriage and the light of truth.

Come Holy Spirit, once again breathe life upon the valley of dry bones.  Enkindle within us the fire of your love.  

Br Silvester O’Flynn OFM Cap.

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