All Day (Friday)
Meditations for Lent By: Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet Courtesy of Sophia Institute Press Week 1: Friday Christian Righteousness At the beginning of his explanation of the precepts of the Christian life, Jesus laid as their foundation this
Meditations for Lent
By: Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
Courtesy of Sophia Institute Press
Week 1: Friday
At the beginning of his explanation of the precepts of the Christian life, Jesus laid as their foundation this beautiful rule: that Christian righteousness must “exceed” that of the most perfect of the Jews and the doctors of the Law (Matt. 5:20). Let us take special care correctly to understand the perfection of the new law of the Gospel, which from our baptism we have sworn to keep.
In order to oblige us to keep his law, Jesus took care to elevate the perfection of Christian righteousness by three degrees. First, we must surpass the wisest of the pagans. This is why he said, “Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt. 5:47). By this he meant: you should therefore do more. We are told to disdain riches; did not the wise pagans do as much? To be faithful to our friends; were not the pagans as well? To avoid fraud and deceit; did not the pagans detest them? To flee adultery; were not even the most licentious pagans horrified by it?
The second degree is to rise above the justice of the law and of those who know God. And this again in three degrees, by avoiding the three defects of Jewish righteousness. The first is that it was only an exterior righteousness: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup,” which is why you are called “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:25, 27). See the Pharisee in St. Luke: “I am not like other men.” And how do you surpass them? “I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). He boasts only about the exterior. Those Christians who are attached only to exterior observances resemble him. To say one’s breviary, to go to church, to attend Mass and Vespers, to take holy water, to kneel: in absence of right intention this is a pharisaical righteousness. It seems to be exacting in a certain way, but gains a just reproach from Jesus: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8). It is a false righteousness. But what shall we say about those who do not have even this exterior precision, unless that they are worse than the Pharisees?
The second defect of Jewish righteousness is, as St. Paul says, “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). They thought themselves capable of doing good works by themselves instead of recognizing that it is God who works in them. St. Paul once had this righteousness, but consider how he speaks of it: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Note the word blameless: it seems as though perfection can be carried to no higher point, and yet he immediately adds: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (cf. Phil. 3:6-9). Here then is the second defect of Jewish righteousness: believing that a man’s own works make him righteous. This righteousness is impure and, according to St. Paul, is nothing but refuse because it is nothing but pride. Let us then take care to avoid it, referring humbly to God what little good we accomplish.
But the third defect of Jewish righteousness is that its works fell short in comparison to the standard to which man is held by the Gospel. For by it we are obliged to a greater perfection than those who merely do good. Why? “Because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus,” as St. Paul said, which is one of the truths that Jesus intended by the words “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5:20).
Yet here is something still more excellent, the third degree of perfection, which is that Christian righteousness must rise above itself. “No, brethren,” said St. Paul (Phil. 3:12-14), I do not think “that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on,” like a man who does not think that he has yet attained what he desires. “But one thing,” but all that I do, all that I seek, all that I think, “forgetting what lies behind” — you see, all of the progress that he has made is nothing to him; he neither stops nor rests — “and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Understand this word: he strains, he makes an effort, he goes beyond himself, he suffers a sort of dislocation by the effort that he makes to advance.
Here then is the true Christian, the man who is truly righteous. He believes himself to have done nothing, for if he believed himself to be sufficiently just, then he would not be just at all. We must always advance. “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (cf. Matt. 5:48). Let us at least desire to be, for to wish to rest in what one has, as if one were assured it would be sufficient, is to renounce righteousness. What is more, if you do not advance, you will falter. For you will be one who “looks back,” contrary to the precept of the Gospel. And what will the Savior then decide? That you are not “fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
This is why he said that we must “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). This is no ordinary desire. It is a desire like the one that leads us to eat and to live; it is an ardent and invincible desire that should be kept forever aflame. Whatever your condition, you should have this hunger and thirst; as the capacity of your interior is infinite, so also is the righteousness you seek.