7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ‘Love One Another as I Have Loved You’

SCRIPTURES & ART: The issues Jesus raises in the Sermon on the Plain have vexed thinkers for aeons.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1598
Jan Brueghel the Elder, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1598 (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, Jesus began his Sermon on the Plain. Florentine artist Cosimo Rosselli rendered the scene with an attentive crowd dressed like people living in Italy in the late 1400s. Today, Jesus trades his 15th-century Renaissance Florentine crowd for a late 16th-century Flemish one. But before we get to the art, first the Scripture.

Jesus opened his Sermon last week with a series of four blessings and woes, making clear to his audience what they could expect if they followed him. This week, he unpacks some of his morality.

One could say that Jesus wants to emphasize two things today: the internal content of morality, formed by mercy. 

Jesus does not abandon morality: today’s Gospel is packed with moral injunctions. Morality is not alien to Jesus: he himself makes clear he has not come to abolish but fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17-19), while John in the early Church reminded us that anybody who claims to follow Jesus but not the Commandments is a liar (1 John 2:4). 

Indeed, one of the chief defining characteristics of Judaism and Christianity is the moral aspect of man’s relationship with God. Both religions make clear that God and man relate on the moral level. God is Love, and to love involves sharing what is truly good. Therefore, true religion cannot not involve morality.

That’s what differentiated Judaism and Christianity from what surrounded them. Ancient religions — in Egypt, Babylon, Canaan, Greece or Rome — did not require followers to act morally. They didn’t even require their gods to act morally, as we see from the sexual deviancy of Astarte and Zeus and the child sacrifice of Moloch. Such are the differences between true and false religion.

So, up front, let’s disabuse ourselves of the contemporary mythology that “Jesus was not into morality.” He was, even if some of those claiming to speak in his name aren’t.

That’s why I pointed out last week that Rosselli’s depiction of the Sermon on the Mount is paired with his depiction of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. That’s done not to oppose one to the other, but to show their continuity. The very first “hermeneutic of continuity” is not to be found in how to interpret Vatican II — it lies in how to understand the continuity of relationship between Law and Gospel.

Today, Jesus deepens morality by emphasizing not just our deeds but our intentions and motivations. 

Every moral act has at least two essential components: the act itself and the intention. Acts have meanings, they “say” things in themselves, regardless of our intentions. That is why it is Catholic teaching that there are acts which are “intrinsically evil,” i.e., wrong regardless of the intentions of the person doing them. An act can already have a moral content before any intention on the actor’s part enters the picture.

Doubt it? If I walk up to you, spit in your face and punch you in the nose, that act “says” something even if I say nothing. If I “explain” the act by saying “what I did expresses my love for you,” you would rightly say that (i) I am being sarcastically ironic or (ii) am crazy. What you would not say is, “Oh, right, I never thought of that. Thanks!”

(Doubt about acts having moral meaning in themselves is particularly widespread among people today with respect to sexual morality. On that point, a too-neglected-but-very-worthwhile book is Paul Quay’s Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality).

But while acts have meanings in themselves, that doesn’t mean our intentions don’t also factor into the picture. There are no right reasons to do wrong deeds, but there are wrong reasons for doing otherwise right deeds. Jesus wants us to pair the right motive with the right deed.

To love another means loving without expectation of reciprocation. That’s how God loves, and that’s what he asks of his followers. It may take many forms in different instances, e.g., giving even when taken … to the cleaners … or resisting, even when the resistance is only nonviolent. 

The issues Jesus raises in today’s Sermon on the Plain have vexed thinkers for aeons. Put simplistically, they have often been called the relationship between justice and love. I say “simplisitically,” because that formulation is misleading: justice and love are never opposed.

Our problem might better be formulated, in the light of today’s Gospel, as the relationship in love between justice and mercy. I say “in love” because we err if we think justice is love’s opposite (no true virtue can be in opposition to another) or that mercy a squishy excuse to ignore or get around justice. 

Love sometimes demands a strict accounting. Love sometime demands generous pardon. Love always demands seeing the self in the other (“do unto others as you would have done unto yourself”) and the readiness to put the true good of the other over one’s self (“do good to those who hate you”). That’s why a virtue we often forget — prudence — is so important. Prudence guides is to the best way to achieve the good, i.e., to love, in this concrete situation. The Commandments may show us that this path will not lead to the good, but the question of which path best will get me there is something other. That is the job of prudence. Prudence allows love to be just and merciful.

This week’s Gospel is embodied in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s “Sermon on the Mount,” now owned by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. 

Like his depiction of the preaching of St. John, which we examined on the Third Sunday of Advent, Brueghel likes to emphasize the crowd. It takes a little searching to find Jesus almost halfway from the left in the painting, dressed in a yellowish-white robe, his knees showing, his identity indicated by the pale halo above his head. Many, but not all, are listening attentively. Some are simply socializing and gossiping. Toward the bottom, the lady in yellow is being solicited by a peddler hawking pretzels. To her right is a little circle which commentators say is a Gypsy woman telling fortunes.

Clearly, like the parable of the sower and the seeds (Matthew 13:1-23), Christ’s word falls on all different sorts of grounds, as well we might expect, in Brughel’s painting. Surely there were those who heard the Sermon on the Mount and followed Christ more closely, those who drew some inspiration, those who went out of curiosity to hear the “new preacher from Galilee,” those who had nothing else to do that day, and those who went away convinced he was either unrealistic or mad. In other words, the people were not so very different from us or from Brueghel’s contemporaries, which is why dressing them anachronistically in the clothes of the 16th-century Low Countries.

The figure farthest on the right, with a walking stick, seems just to have stumbled upon this event and looks curiously at it. Is he me, who hearing something new, hearing the Word of God, will stop to listen, or just go on his way, focused on other things?