Virtue on the Mount

In contemplating Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) in recent weeks, one section that has really struck me is the part known as the “Six Antitheses”–the series of six statements by Our Lord that begin “You have heard it said . . .” followed by “I say to you . . .” These statements are found in Matthew 5:21-48.

There are many ways of looking at this passage. What has struck me of late is that Jesus, in coming to fulfill the law and not abolish it (Mt. 5:17), is having us move from mere adherence to negative moral precepts to the cultivation of the opposite virtues. Jesus’ words are not in opposition to what people have heard, but rather gives the motive and–through the gift of the Holy Spirit–the power to strive for a holiness and righteousness that exceeds mere observance of the law (cf. Mt. 5:20).

So, let me summarize the “Six Antitheses” from the viewpoint of virtue development: 

(1)  You have heard it said that you shall not kill. Our Lord tells us to foster the virtue of meekness.

(2) You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. Our Lord tells us to foster sexual purity and the virtue of chastity.

(3) You have heard it said that you shouldn’t divorce and remarry. Our Lord tells us to foster marital fidelity.

(4) You have heard it said that you shouldn’t take a false oath. Our Lord tells us to foster the virtue of honesty.

(5) You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Our Lord tells us to foster the virtues of forgiveness and generosity.

(6) You have heard it said: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Our Lord tells us to foster the virtues of charity and solidarity with all, especially with those who are most difficult for us to love.

In other words, we are called to be perfect, as Our Heavenly Father is perfect. We’re not there yet, and we’ll never get there on our own, but with God all things are possible. He not only shows us the way to happiness in the Sermon on the Mount, but also gives us His very life in the sacraments so we can get there.

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