Sunday, Feb. 12, is the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A). Mass Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37 or 5:20-22, 27-28, 33-34, 37.

Today’s Gospel gives the secret to Christian morality: love.

It quotes Jesus in the part of the Sermon on the Mount where he is insisting that he has not come to abolish the Law, but fulfill it. He says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

That sounds daunting. The Pharisees were very righteous. They worked hard at never breaking even the smallest rules. How can we work harder than they did?

The examples Jesus gives are telling. They are each very different, but each follow the same formula:

He cites the commandment “You shall not kill,” then adds, “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

He cites the commandment against adultery, then adds, “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

He cites the commandment, “Do not take a false oath,” then adds, “But I say to you, do not swear at all. ... Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

In each case he cites a commandment having to do with an exterior action and follows it with a new command about an interior attitude. The formula, “You have heard it said: Don’t let your behavior hurt others. I say to you, Don’t let your heart harm your relationship with God.”

Jesus is teaching us not just to be careful about what we do; he’s telling us to be careful about who we are. How can we surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees?

By going from external commands to virtues. By not just bowing to the rules, but attaching our hearts to God.

That takes love.

The rest of the readings give further instruction on the same point. The Psalm emphasizes that we are not meant to supplant these commandments with good feelings. “You have commanded that your precepts be diligently kept. … Instruct me, O, Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them.”

The Church wants us to know: Christian morality is not a matter of the commandments becoming less strict.

In fact, the first reading is about the terribly real consequences of free will: “Before man are life and death, good and evil,” says Sirach. “Whichever he chooses shall be given him.”

It’s the second reading that starts to deepen our motivation: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

We are to follow God not just from duty and not just from fear. We are to follow him because he has given us a unique vision of himself. We are to follow his commandments because we have come to know and love him, and we don’t want anything to come between us. “Just follow the rules” never works. “I love you, so I don’t want to offend you” is what will work in the end.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at

Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

He is the author of What Pope Francis Really Said.