The Sunday Mass readings lead us on a clear path from the commandments to a deeper inner conversion. These readings poise us to begin our Lenten preparations. This article guides you in understanding how we are to achieve Jesus’ call to practice “righteousness surpass[ing] the scribes and Pharisees,” as the Gospel demands. To answer this question requires a fuller understanding of righteousness, justification, and the hinge on which all rests: sanctifying grace.
The Commandments and Beyond
Sirach makes clear the choice that lies in our free will and the guide that helps us choose well: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; / if you trust in God, you too shall live; / he has set before you fire and water; / to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand….The eyes of God are on those who fear him / he understands man’s every deed.” (Sirach 15:15-20)
We should fear God insofar, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds, we should fear losing our communion with him through his Holy Church. Our choice is clear: There is good and there is evil; we choose well when we follow the commandments. Today’s psalm refrain drives home this point directly: “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!” (Psalm 119)
In the Sunday Epistle, St. Paul extends our thinking beyond the concrete laws to understand that the source of these laws lies in the wisdom of God “before the ages for our glory.” He emphasizes the gift that awaits us: “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….For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:6-10)
This movement inward, from understanding and following the commandments to understanding the Spirit behind these commandments extends further in the Gospel reading. Jesus clarifies his purpose regarding the law: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He goes further than encourage obedience to the law; he emphasizes that we must understand the right principle guiding that law and follow each principle or spirit to its fullest. Hence, the law against killing starts with anger in our hearts; it is that anger that we must renounce. The commandment against adultery supercedes laws allowing for divorce in limited situations; in fact, marriage is sacred, and anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Remember that such offenses called for stoning to death at this time. Jesus summarizes his call to us: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-37) The fact that Jesus fulfills the law reminds us that we must cling to Him and to His Church to realize the high call to which we are each summoned.
The Catholic Meaning of Righteousness
The Gospel speaks of our “righteousness,” and this creates a puzzling concept that provides the pivot point distinguishing Catholicism from every branch of protestantism. While all Christians emphasize the once for all sacrifice of Christ, protestants emphasize a once-for-all conversion that justifies them before God. Hence, evangelicals pose one question to others in their evangelizing work: ‘Are you saved?’ They take confidence in, what has come to be known as, the doctrine of assurance — the concept that they feel assured of their salvation because they have had a conversion experience which made them righteous before God. Not only is the process more complicated, but the absence of sacramental grace makes the protestants’ path toward heaven more difficult to assure. Of course, one can never limit the grace of God, and we know that all our protestant brothers and sisters have some elements of truth. Yet the Catholic Church offers the fullness of faith, and nowhere is this more clear than in the Church’s understanding of righteousness, justification and sanctifying grace.
Righteousness relates to justification and culminates in sanctification. That which is right and just relates to the virtue of justice: the moral quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to each and to all what belongs to them. How can we become “righteous” and “justified” as faithful followers of Christ? What is the process of sanctification? In more simple terms, how do we become holy? The Church explains this process through the language of “causes” — the sources for our righteousness and justification in grace.
God in the Trinity is the final cause.
God’s mercy is the efficient cause.
Christ’s sacrifice is the meritorious cause.
The sacraments are the instrumental cause.
To simplify this: God is the source of all life and all that is contained within eternal life. God’s mercy initiates movement in our souls. As the Catechism explains, “Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high…. Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (CCC 1989). Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross provides the merit (or earns) the possibility of our reunion with God. Christ gives us the sacraments as instruments or the means by which we tap into His merits and God’s mercy in order to be in full communion with our Triune God. Moreover, that communion extends to the entire Body of Christ, enabling us to perfect our will and to refine our attunement to act with charity toward all, giving each his due.
Our capacity to live a life of holiness starts at a divine source and lies beyond our power. Grace is infused in us through the sacraments, and we must choose to participate in the sacraments and to prepare ourselves fully to receive these with a heart aligned to the good. As the Catechism states, “Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God” (CCC 1996). The initiating action of grace in our lives is through Baptism: “Baptism…conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy” (CCC 1992). Baptism creates an indelible mark on our souls.
From our Baptism, through the other sacraments of initiation — First Communion and culminating in Confirmation — and through Confession and the Mass, God gives ongoing infusion in grace to keep us on our path toward our heavenly home. The Catechism explains how we move from this initial infusion of grace in Baptism through our life’s journey: “Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called ‘mystical’ because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments” (CCC 2014). The Church also infuses our vocations with sanctifying grace through the sacraments of marriage or the priesthood-religious life. Our earthly lives culminate in suffering and death, our rebirth into eternal life, which should also be sanctified by the sacrament of holy chrism.
The Problem of Sin and the Call of Lent
The problem of sin creates detours in our “spiritual progress,” but the Sacrament of Confession renews the innocence of our Baptism. Still, there is work for us to do in order to cooperate with grace. As the Sunday Gospel reminds us, we must strive to obey God’s commandments in the full spirit of God’s love. We must align our will to that which is good and holy. We must treat others as they are due. This requires the constant re-directing of our will with all the helps of the Church and with our reason. We must understand the virtues, strive toward them, and respond to others by applying the right principles. We must obey God and his Church with all humility; we must fear losing communion with God through sin.
Most of all we have to tame our wills to resist natural concupiscence, the tendency to desire lower order rather than higher order goods. Our ability to act with virtue requires our efforts but relies on God’s grace. Throughout, the sacraments are the keys to infusing our lives with the grace that leads us to sanctification. “Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us; it is infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it….Sanctifying grace makes us ‘pleasing to God’ (CCC 2023-2024).
The refinement of our soul on this side of heaven involves carrying crosses, rejecting sin and conquering evil through spiritual battle: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle” (2015). Given the challenges our soul faces, outwardly through spiritual warfare and inwardly through concupiscence, we must cling to the sacraments to infuse our lives with the grace that forms our beginning and end.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers a variety of guides for the examination of conscience, based on your state in life. This is the first step in our Lenten journey, one which begins March 5th with Ash Wednesday, but which is a continuous journey in the soul’s striving toward holiness.