This Sunday, the Sermon on the Mount

SCRIPTURES & ART: ‘A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.’ (CCC 1760)

Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1877
Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1877 (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus’ mission has begun, and he has chosen Apostles to perpetuate it. Today, we hear the Sermon on the Mount. 

Because the current Lectionary tries to reach each Gospel relatively continuously, Matthew’s inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry is immediately followed in Chapters 5-7 by the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ expansion of it. We will read from the Sermon, as contained in Matthew 5, every Sunday from now until Lent starts Feb. 22. You may wish to read chapters 6-7 to get the whole picture.

There is a tradition in the Church that focused on the difference between the Commandments and the counsels. The Commandments bind everyone. Different counsels apply to different people in different states of life.

There’s some truth to that, but I would focus on a different aspect of the Sermon: the internalization of morality.

Catholic moral theology teaches that a moral act has three elements: the end of the act (finis operis), the end or intention of the agent (finis operantis) and circumstances. All three must be good if an act is good — any one can render it evil.

This is an area of contemporary confusion, which sometimes spills over into parodies of Jesus’ moral teaching. First, however, let’s define these elements.

The finis operis is what an act does or says, independently of the agent’s intention. Acts speak. If I slap you hard across the face, that act said something. If I subsequently told you, “I did that to express my love and respect for you,” you’d think I was either crazy or making fun of you, because what the act does is inconsistent with the intention. So acts have their own meaning, independent of intention. So acts can be intrinsically evil.

The finis operantis is what most people would call “intention” — why I did that act. Good intentions don’t remedy bad acts — think the slap. But good acts can be negated by bad intentions. Giving somebody a job is generally a good thing. If my purpose in giving that job was to provide that person employment, that’s good. If I did it subsequently to extract sexual favors, the goodness of the deed is vitiated by the evil of the intention.

Circumstances generally do not affect an act as much as add or subtract from its moral quality. Pope Francis canonized several Polish nuns last June. One of the nuns was witness to Russian “liberator” soldiers entering a Catholic chapel to use a chalice as a drinking vessel, then for target practice. Rape is always wrong, but raping a consecrated nun adds additional malice to the wrong.

The Pharisees had become obsessed with the deed, almost to forgetting about the intention. They surveyed the Old Testament and found 613 mitzvah or “commandments” and turned them into a moral checklist: didn’t kill anybody, check; didn’t steal, check; paid the Temple tax on spices, here, check. … They then treated their checklist as a ticket entitling them to salvation.

Now it wasn’t wrong that they carried out those commandments. It was right: even Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel that “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, just beyond today’s Gospel lection).

But it was right for the wrong reasons. The wrong reasons were thinking that morality was only a matter of performance, not personal transformation. It reduced morality to a form of magic or, worse, a claim against God. God is “placated” by performing commandments (much like pagans think deities are placated by magic rituals). And it implicitly acts as if God is a bargaining partner against whom one can lodge claims.

The Sermon on the Mount demands we internalize our morality. We should do the right for the right reasons. We worship God not because God said “do it” or because failing to is a “sin,” but because God is our God and we recognize our dependence upon and debt to him. We don’t kill or lie not because we can’t get away with it but because the God we worship is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and we want to live in that Truth and Life. It’s not that “we could do this if we just weren’t Christians” but because we recognize something deeper.

That’s why, in Matthew 5-7, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for praying and fasting for public attention rather than to grow closer to God. 

Our world seems to suffer the opposite problem. Some people seem to think that all God wants is a “good intention,” and that the deeds we do out of good intentions really don’t matter, if not actually good.

Well, the road to hell is paved with “good intentions.”

Demanding that our morality become internal does not do away with the objective meaning of the acts we do: the good intention doesn’t make a slap a sign of affection. We can’t let the pendulum swing to the other direction, obliterating — often by redefining — the reality of what we do in the name of why we did it. “I did not come to abolish the Law ….”

The Sermon on the Mount teaches us attitudes — particularly humility in various forms — that are prerequisite to and support real holiness, and holiness is everybody’s business. That is the teaching of Scripture (“Be ye perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” — Matthew 5:48) and Vatican II (see “universal call to holiness” in Lumen gentium No. 9).

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by an 1877 oil painting by the Danish artist Carl Bloch (1834-1890). I chose “Bjergprædiken” (The Sermon on the Mount) because it is frequently reproduced, not just to depict the Sermon but as a general illustration of Jesus teaching. The painting is one of 23 that Bloch was commissioned to create for the Royal Chapel at Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød, Denmark, perhaps 20 miles from Copenhagen and have been models for many contemporary artists wanting to illustrate the Life of Christ. 

Jesus occupies the central and highest point in the painting. His uplifted hand, an oratorical gesture, also points to heaven and the elevated morality he proposes. The dominance of blue may also suggest both heaven and hope. An audience has gathered around Jesus — while 14 men and women immediately surround him, a look in the distance towards the background mountains shows the “crowd” that has gathered around him. The man at the foot of the rock, hands folded, clearly hears hope in what he is listening to and prays for its fulfillment. One commentator suggests that the man holding his beard just behind Christ may be Bloch himself. A little girl (third from left) appears intent on capturing the butterfly on the woman’s head crouched in front of her. Jugs (the first century’s equivalent of water bottles) are scattered around. 

Bloch was probably a Lutheran, which would make him generally Danish establishment. He was trained in the Royal Danish Academy and received grants to study elsewhere in Europe, including Italy (where he met his wife). His almost classical religious depictions (complete without halos except — sometimes — for Jesus) made him acceptable to Protestant artists. Ironically, for the same reason, Bloch’s art (including the Frederiksborg cycle) has been largely adopted by the Mormons, among whom he is very popular.