3rd Sunday of Lent
Preached March 4, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace. Those are the words of Jesus as he purifies the Temple of the Lord, chasing the money changers out with a whip of cords. Love for his Father and love for what belongs to his Father is the motivation for Jesus’ wrath.
So also Jesus wants to purify the Temple of our heart; he wants to create a new heart within us; he wants to write his law in our heart through the power of his Holy Spirit. Our heart cannot at the same time belong completely to Jesus and be a worldly marketplace, filled with all manner of ulterior motivations that lead us in countless ways to seek gain, advantage, and profit for ourselves in this world, often at the expense of others.
Today I come to the sixth of seven homilies that I am preaching on the basics of the Catholic faith. Last Sunday I introduced the concept of the ‘new heart’ that Jesus wants to create in us through the power of his Holy Spirit. That ‘new heart’ is constituted by sanctifying grace, through which we share in God’s own life, becoming his children, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the theological and moral virtues. Last week, I spoke about the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Today, I will have to say something about the moral virtues, grouped around the four cardinal (or ‘hinge’) virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
I will begin with the cardinal virtue of justice, which is defined as the constant and perpetual will to render to each that which belongs to him. The virtue of justice sets us in the objective realm of our duties with respect to our fellow men and to God. Justice towards God goes by the name of ‘religion’. A person who rejects the practice of religion declares that we have no objective duties towards God.
Justice is not primarily about what we are entitled to, what we can demand from others, but what we owe to others. The objective character of justice gives orientation to the other cardinal virtues.
In today’s 1st reading we heard the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, which were given to all the people of God. The Ten Commandments, as proclaimed in Scripture, are actually quite minimal; they spell out our most basic obligations towards God and towards our neighbor, the basic obligations of justice.
The first three commandments (1. I am the Lord your God, you shall not have other gods before me 2. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain 3. Keep holy the Lord’s day) specify our basic religious duties towards God and the second seven commandments (4. Honor you father and your mother 5. You shall not kill 6. You shall not commit adultery 7. You shall not steal 8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor 9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife 10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor) specify our basic duties of justice towards other men. Naturally, we should know the Ten Commandments by heart and teach the to our children; it will help if we grasp the division into duties towards God and duties towards men and so learn the commandments in order.
The commandments, by themselves, as stated, are rather minimal. Nevertheless, if we pay close attention to the goods they protect, they reveal the fundamental goods of human life. The first three commandments reveal the primacy of God over all things, the reverence due to his name, and the importance of divine worship. The remaining commandments reveal the importance of the authority of parents, to whom we owe our life, the good of human life itself, the good of marriage, the good of private property, which should serve the life of marriage and family, and the good of truth and a person’s good name.
The Ten Commandments, with their basic demands, give us a starting point; they train us in the practice of justice and require prudence, fortitude, and temperance for their fulfillment.
Unfortunately, when it comes to putting desire into action, when it comes to living in accordance with the commandments of God, we find ourselves in the midst of a world, a public culture, that seems hell bent on fighting against the commandments. Without the strength of virtue we will be unable to keep the commandments.
Justice first and foremost keeps the commandments; the virtue of justice moves the whole life of virtue out of the interior subjective realm, into the realm of objective human relationships. In that light we can now turn our attention briefly to the other three cardinal virtues.
The virtue of prudence is the truly human virtue that places our life under the rule of reason. Human reason, though, is not self-sufficient; it needs to be illumined by the light of faith. Human reason does not make reality, but understands reality. In the moral order, then, prudence does not invent justice, but serves justice; prudence does not decide which commandments to obey and which to disobey; rather the virtue of prudence shows us how to obey the commandments in all the concrete situations of our daily life.
The virtue of prudence also teaches us how to master and regulate the impulses that we find in ourselves, especially fear of pain and suffering and the desire for pleasure, that could keep us from fulfilling the demands of justice. That leads us to the other two cardinal virtues.
The virtue of fortitude gives us the ability to master our fears so as boldly to undertake or to suffer whatever is required to be faithful to the commandments. The virtue of fortitude gives us the strength even to lay down our life to save someone else’s life. Fortitude, however, is not reckless, but prudent. The reckless man throws away his life for a trifle; the brave man risks his life, when called for, for something truly good and noble.
Finally, there is the virtue of temperance which moderates our desire for pleasure lest being preoccupied with fulfilling our own selfish desires we fail to meet the demands of justice or even end up committing grave injustices. Temperance has two main parts, the moderation of our desire for food and drink, and the very important, beautiful, and forgotten virtue of chastity, which masters the sexual instinct, integrating it into a healthy and whole human personality.
Besides the cardinal virtues, there is a whole array of secondary virtues, that are also needed to live and upright and godly life. Among the secondary virtues humility deserves special mention as a characteristic Christian virtue. Humility is a virtue whereby we recognize that we are parts of a greater whole and that even that whole is itself subordinated to God himself above all. Humility both recognizes the nobility of the part that we are given to play in God’s plan and embraces that small task that has been given to us.
The cardinal virtues, together with the secondary virtues, are oriented first of all on the demands of justice; without justice there can be no true love. That is why serious violations of the Ten Commandments are mortal sins that destroy the life of grace and the love of charity. The path of duty and discipline marked out by the commandments is beginning of the way of love; the life of virtue that is built up by fidelity to the commandments gives us the power and freedom to give ourselves in love.
Virtue gives power to love, and love animates the life of virtue; the love of God, or charity, is the highest motive for fulfilling the first three commandments and love of neighbor is the highest motive for fulfilling the second seven commandments. Love fulfills the commandments and does much more.
Obeying the commandments and animating the cardinal virtues, the love of charity always moves us farther, to do more than what is required of us. The love of charity moves us beyond the demands of justice to the practice of mercy, to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Through the prophet Jeremiah God announced the new Covenant in Jesus Christ, The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:31,33)
Jesus Christ writes this law upon our hearts through the power of his Holy Spirit, through the gift of sanctifying grace together with the theological and moral virtues and through the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit helps us to fulfill the law of God in a particular way through the gift of piety. When we come under the influence of piety, the law of God no longer seems to us a burden, like the imposition of some foreign power, rather we come to love the law as something that belongs to us and that makes us belong to our heavenly Father’s house. The gift of piety makes us like Jesus zealous for our Father’s house.