In his fifth exposition on Psalm 119, St. Augustine reflects on learning the commandments of God both in and through practice. Augustine writes, “(The psalmist) adds, therefore, ‘Blessed are you, O Lord: teach me your ways of justice.’ He prays, ‘Teach me’: let me learn them as people who carry them out learn them, (bold emphasis mine) not as those who simply memorize them in order to have something to say.” Augustine then a little further goes on to reflect, “Why then does he go on to pray, ‘Teach me your ways of justice?’ It must be because he wants to learn them by putting them into practice, not merely by repeating them and committing them to memory.” (Quotes taken from Expositions of the Psalms, New City Press, 2003)
Augustine here is hitting on a very important point. There is a depth and authenticity of knowledge regarding God’s commandments that can only be gained by and through lived practice. “…let me learn them as people who carry them out learn them…” In this Sunday’s gospel (Mt. 5:17-37) our Lord says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20)
The scribes and Pharisees certainly knew the words of God’s commandments and they could certainly quote the Scriptures and God’s law and prophets but they lacked that which is of of the utmost importance: the insight gained only through practice. “…let me learn them as people who carry them out learn them…” Therefore the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was lacking and our Lord recognized this.
Our Lord in today’s gospel is calling for something much more deeper for us – his disciples. The mere memorizing of words is not enough. Our Lord, who comes “not to abolish but fulfill” (Mt. 5:17) the law and prophets greatly desires that we have a lived knowledge of God’s law so he steps it up by taking it to the heart – to that place within us where grace and our will interact.
“You have heard is said, ‘You shall not kill’ … But, I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Mt. 5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ … But, I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:27-28) “Again, you have heard is said … ‘Do not take a false oath’ … But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’.” (Mt. 5:33-37)
This knowledge which can only be gained through practice begins within – in that place where God’s grace and our will meet and the choice is made to carry out God’s commandment. This is the knowledge which moves beyond the mere memorizing of words to that which is true, authentic and that which gives life and wisdom. This is what our Lord greatly desires for us. It is the only knowledge that can transform lives … beginning with our own.