The Commandments do not come from some place far away from our experience. Granted, the Lord spelled them out as a list of ten on Mount Sinai, which does seem like a long way away from here. But the tables given to Moses do not say anything which we do not, in our heart of hearts, already know. Starting with the first commandment, that we acknowledge God. Truth is, all the rest of the commandments follow from #1.
And we know, practically from the womb, that a glorious Power greater than us made all and governs all. We know that our job, our common task, our vocation as human beings bound together by our inherent social nature, is: To serve the grand designs of God as faithfully and as lovingly as we possibly can. We cannot consistently maintain any other vision of life, unless we lull ourselves into living a lie by repeated acts of self-debasement. God’s plan involves glorious goodness beyond what we can imagine. He gives us the insight and the honesty to know that we must diligently and consistently serve His plan. Humbly. That’s why we exist.
So when the Lord Jesus ascended His own mount and gave a sermon explaining the Ten Commandments, unfolding all of their profound demands, He was really explaining to us the most fundamental imperatives of our own hearts. He explained what our own consciences demand of us when we give ourselves the peace and quiet to hear it.
Now, two-faced hypocrites who sing sweet hymns to Jesus and then turn around and flimflam their way through business and personal relationships—they do not serve the divine plan any better than the most-notorious sinners regularly highlighted on reality tv. Nor do Christians who fudge their Christianity have the real peace that we wish each other at every Mass right before we prepare ourselves for Holy Communion.
In fact, I don’t think I go too far if I say to you: The Lord Jesus preached His rigorous, His demanding Sermon on the Mount to us for one reason, namely so that we, by hearing His explanations of the commandments and applying them to ourselves thoroughly, might actually have the peace of the Lord which the priest wishes to be with you always, and with his spirit.
When we recognize that this peace of Christ beats any other good we can have in this life, then the challenging things the Lord said in His famous sermon actually seem pretty obvious, demanding as they may be. Obvious, except for one thing. Lord Jesus loved to smuggle beautiful little gems into His discourses. Gems which just sit there, waiting for us to have the calm and recollection to catch them.
Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
How could He not have smiled when He said those words? Sounds hard, surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Except for this: the whole idea that we even can enter the kingdom of heaven at all—that there even is a kingdom of heaven—it is He, Jesus, and not the scribes nor the Pharisees, nor Sigmund Freud nor Depak Chopra, nor Queen Latifah nor Elton John—it is Jesus and only Jesus Who teaches us and assures us that there is a heaven to enter.
My point: The Sermon on the Mount does not teach noble self-abnegation to no particular purpose. It does not turn us into disinterested nothings who just don’t care. It’s not about: “I’m so morally superior that I don’t care whether I wind up happy or not.”
No. Following the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount involves the consummate act of self-interested human prudence. I wouldn’t pay the Sermon on the Mount any mind myself, wouldn’t castigate myself for all the times I fail to follow it, if all the Lord promised was a pair of Super Bowl tickets as a reward. Just to sit and watch a flubbed snap on the first play from scrimmage, and then downhill from there. Not motivation enough.
But: Struggle, and drive myself to follow what the Lord says, for the sake of getting to heaven? Where everything beautiful comes to full consummation, and the strife and press of the battle here below falls silent before a paradise of truth and tranquility? Well, yeah. Hell yeah. Who wouldn’t forgive an enemy or two, here or there, for that?