— Name withheld, location withheld
Answer: Since the fuller context of the sermon is not here, it is difficult to know what he means. There are people today who substitute a vague “love” for any parameters or rules, and this is incorrect and a form of self-deception. Love does have parameters. However, there are very reputable theologians who would agree that moral theology over the past 500 years has become too solely focused on obligations, laws and rules and, as such, has become disconnected with grace and the moral renewal that is offered to us through relationship with Jesus Christ.
The biblical, patristic and scholastic tradition all emphasized that the heart of the Gospel was a transformative union with Christ that liberated us from sin and death. Therefore, the moral dimension of the Christian life flows from this transformative union.
As such, the moral vision of the Sermon on the Mount, and the epistles and early Church discipline were describing (not merely prescribing) what the transformed human person is like, if they have met Jesus Christ and received the healing power of his saving grace.
How does a moral vision flow from relationship? Consider that we have all met people who have changed our life. Maybe it was a teacher who inspired us and who opened new ways of thinking for us or showed us gifts we didn’t know we had. Maybe it was someone who hired us or opened career paths for us we never imagined. Maybe it was a spouse who has helped to complete us. The rules or disciplines of the new things they showed us were not first — the relationship was first, and then we gladly moved forward in the new paths they opened.
If mere human beings can have this effect on us, why not the Lord? Yet sadly, today, many are not presented the Gospel in this manner. In terms of moral theology, most people hear “rules” and “obligations” and not a powerfully inspiring and transformative relationship with the Lord who loves them, died for them and can now raise them out of the slavery to sin to glorious freedom of the children of God. Rules and laws are important because they describe for us what this new life is like. It is a life increasingly free from idolatry of things and people, from greed, lust, anger, resentments, lies and perversions and so forth.
As to the concern that returning to a relational model will minimize the Christian life or make it vague, actually, and properly understood, it is the opposite. Consider that a man who loves his wife surely follows the Fifth Commandment not to murder her. But he does far more: he loves and cherishes her and does not wish to be rid of her. Thus, law points to what is minimally required but love asks “What more can I do?”
Jesus’ moral vision in the Sermon on the Mount is far more vigorous than the Law of Moses. For example, Jesus says it is not enough to refrain from the act of adultery or illicit sexual union; even our thoughts are summoned to purity (Mt 5:27-30). Thus the love of God, rooted in a transformative relationship with Jesus, requires more not less, and grace will accomplish it, if we actually walk with Christ.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.