Homily no. 31 – ‘Law & Grace’ (CCC 1949–2029)

Sermon On The Mount

Sermon On The Mount (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

As we move forward towards considering the Ten Commandments in the Catechism, we think today about the role of law and of grace.  If we had not fallen; if man and woman had not sinned at the dawn of history, then we would have known in our hearts, without confusion, the things which were right and wrong, the things to do and not to do.  This is because the law of God, the laws of right and wrong are not contrary to our human nature: they are not imposed on us, but are natural for us.  In fact, that is why the divine law is often called ‘the natural law’: “the natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid.  God has given this light or law at the creation” (CCC 1955).  This means that man was originally meant to know in his heart what would be the will of God for Him at each moment of moral decision.  This law is fixed and for everyone, it is not changing and variable.  It is God’s law: how He made us to live well, so it can’t be alterable.  [This is why, for example, our recent efforts at campaigning against same-sex marriage are not just some Christian belief: it is a law which is written in to human nature; true for all people, not some specific Christian attitude that we are trying to foist on others, non-believers!]  The natural law is true for all — it should be obvious to all humanity.  However, once we had sinned, our judgment was clouded — the law that is natural within us gets mixed up with much confusion, and we know longer always see clearly the right thing to do; we don’t read that natural law very well.

But since God intends that we are able to know clearly right from wrong, and are not to flounder, confused and unable to do what is good, He has gradually revealed His moral law, which helps and corrects our weak moral sense.  First, then, there is the ‘Old Law,’ by which we mean the Law of the Old Testament — principally this is to be found in the Ten Commandments revealed at the time of Moses, some 3200+ yrs ago.  It is the 10 Commandments that form the backbone of this section, Part III, of the Catechism, the section on living a moral life.  Nevertheless, the Old Law was not perfect, since God had more to say.  So, bringing an even greater focus and correction to what we are to know about our moral life, the New Law — the Law of the Gospel, the Law of Christ — is given us by God.  This is contained within the teaching and life of Christ Himself, and the moral teaching subsequently of His apostles.  Much of this is contained within the pages of the New Testament.  A very special section in this regard is the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt 5–7).  You will recall how Jesus repeatedly says in that teaching, “You have heard how it was said … But I say this to you …”: He deepens and corrects man’s understanding of the moral law through a series of teachings.  The moral law is not to be obeyed in a minimal sense, but to the utmost.  So, in that ‘Sermon on the Mount’ Jesus corrects the Old Testament understanding of, for example, moral teaching on killing, on adultery, on revenge etc.  The Law of the Gospel is a far more perfect grasp of the moral Law: it is God Himself, in the Son, Jesus, who actually is teaching us!  Nothing He says can be in the slightest degree wrong or mistaken.  The Gospel also brings with it the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we can actually have that divine help to keep the law!

This bring us to the matter of grace.  ‘Grace’ is an important word for Christians: it means that God gives his divine help — grace — to work within our hearts.  This means that we are not trying to battle to be good just by our own efforts, but with the assistance of God’s Spirit.  His grace brings us to conversion in the first place, it fills us when we make use of the Sacraments — starting with Baptism — and is always a free gift from God.  We do not ‘deserve’ grace: God freely gives us grace, this participation in His life.  Without grace we are limited in what we are able to achieve to please God.  But He doesn’t make it hard to receive these graces: He wants us to be able to have His aid.

By this grace we are, as it is said, ‘justified’ — freed from the grip of sin and death; freed from the condemnation of our sinfulness and set free.  Again, this is a free gift and choice of God.  We heard in the first reading and the Gospel, God’s power over life and death, and the free and unexpected ways of God’s compassion.  Each one of us is dead unless we let God take us by the hand and raise us to new life.  Let’s not refuse all the gifts and graces He is offering.  It is obvious to us that we can’t do it on our own: we so easily fall into sin, and fall away from Him and do what is wrong.  In faith, in the Church, in the Sacraments, we gain the divine aid, His very own helping hand, to do the good that make us truly and happily human.

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About Fr Philip Miller

I'm the Catholic Parish Priest at St Augustine's, Hoddesdon, Herts, UK, in the diocese of Westminster. This cycle of homilies is one of my contributions to this parish's life in the 'Year of Faith' (Oct 2012 - Nov 2013) called for by Pope Benedict XVI to renew the Church's understanding of the faith.
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