Lesson 3a: The Morality of the Renewed Covenant

In Jesus the promises of the prophets that a Messiah, or Anointed One, would come were fulfilled. The Holy Spirit anointed him at his baptism by John the Baptist. He had been sent by God the Father to renew the Covenant for which John had prepared the people by a baptism of repentance. To prepare us for baptism, Jesus, though he was without sin, accepted John's baptism. When John protested Jesus said, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15). There are, of course, episodes in the Gospels where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of violating the Law. But in fact in all these incidents Jesus is very careful to fulfill the Law, although not always as these particular Pharisees wrongly interpreted it. Jewish scholars point out that it was on these very points that the rabbis were not all agreed. Jesus who was as human as we are but without sin was also the Son of God, Eternal Wisdom itself. By his word and the example of his life he taught the Way of Life and gave us the grace to turn away from the Way of Death. He did not abolish the Old Law, but with an authority far superior to that of the prophets, he gave to the Law, materially considered, its true interpretation and its true form. This form is the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor as oneself that "fulfills the Law and the prophets. "Matthew has summed up for us Jesus' moral teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), given in less complete form in Luke as the so-called Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20-49). In this Sermon two elements of the Old Law disappear, the ritual and judicial precepts, but the moral precepts are renewed and perfected. The emphasis throughout is on the interior of morality. Sexual sin begins in the deliberate will before it is carried out in action and so for every other sin. Sins are actions that break or weaken our relation with God, usually by doing harm to ourselves or our neighbor, since we cannot love God and be willing to injure his creatures. We are all called to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, i.e. we are to love God and neighbor with the same love that God loves us. He loved us first and thus gives us the power to love in a similar way in return.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus forbids divorce and remarriage but in Mt 19:1-12 he explains this more fully in a text that gives us the key to the way Jesus interprets all of the Law. The Pharisees quote the text from Deuteronomy 24:1-5 that requires a man if he divorces a woman to give her a document so she can marry again. They ask Jesus for what reason is such a divorce permissible, because some rabbis require the reason of adultery, others any light reason, and the Law does not specify. Jesus answers by going back to God's original law in creation (natural law as confirmed by biblical revelation) in Genesis 1 and 2 that makes marriage monogamous and indissoluble by either the man or the woman. Thus on the basis of the Old Testament itself he perfects the Mosaic Law by returning to God's original plan for humanity. That plan was directed to immortal life (the fruit of the Tree of Life) and thus had a higher goal that was intrinsic to human nature, since we were created in grace.

By returning to the law of creation Jesus made the Old Law into the new Law which applies not just to Jews but to all humanity. The first Christians, who were Jews at first, had a hard time accepting this completely, and the issue became urgent when non-Jews (Gentiles) began to be converted. St. Peter was the first of the apostles to decide that these Gentiles did not have to practice the ritual and judicial precepts of the Law (see Acts 10). Yet even he had his hesitations about its full application, and for some time there were Jewish Christians who continued to practice many of these aspects of the Law. St. Paul, however, when he began his great missionary work decided to insist no longer on circumcisions or the dietary laws and after some debate was supported by the Jerusalem Church (Acts 15:1-20) including St. Peter and especially St. James, bishop of the Jerusalem Jewish Christians. In St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians this point is made very vigorously.

The New Testament Epistles often conclude with a section of moral instruction (Torah) that helps us to see how the moral law of the Old Testament now was applied to Christian living. The focus of these instructions is usually on family morality (Haustafeln) since at that time the Church was small, persecuted, and with little social influence except at the family level. This does not mean that social morality was forgotten, as we see in occasional references, but there is actually more in the Old Testament about this than in the New.

The New Testament teaching, because it presupposes the detailed moral teaching of the Old Testament, does not add very many detailed precepts. Instead it puts its emphasis on the development of Christian character through the virtues, since a consistent fulfillment of the moral precepts of the Bible requires development of the virtues. These virtues are gifts of God given to the Christian at baptism, but they cannot be actually realized unless the person uses these virtues to develop the natural virtues that support them. For example, a newly baptized adult has the virtue of truthfulness, but unless he makes an effort to use it in daily life and thus develops the natural virtue of honesty to support it he will become a liar. Thus the virtues given us in grace help us to develop natural virtues of character and to elevate them to the manner in which Jesus himself lived. In the New Testament it is insisted that the specifically Christian virtues which we receive in baptism are faith, hope, and love (charity) that are called the "theological virtues" because they relate us directly to God.

The Sacraments, rooted in Baptism, centered in the Eucharist, replace the old ceremonial Law and convey the Holy Spirit and his Gifts. The interior Law of Christ is the indwelling Holy Spirit who as healer, purifier, and guide enables every Christian to bear this "easy yoke" if they are to be "meek and humble of heart" as Jesus was. The shepherding, or pastoral care, and the canon law of the Christian community replace the old judicial law. Christians are a leaven in secular societies working to bring peace and justice. They are especially advocates of the poor, and are not subservient to worldly governments.


  1. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), 1964

  2. Read the Books of Exodus. Leviticus, and Deuteronomy


  1. What became of the moral, ritual, and judicial precepts of the Old Law under the New Law?

  2. What does it mean to say that the new Law is the "the Law of the Holy Spirit"?

  3. Why is the moral instruction of the New Testament so lacking in concrete norms compared with the Old Testament?

  4. In what sense did Jesus return to the Law of Creation?

  5. Is it really possible for us to imitate Christ?


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