By Bishop Joseph E. Strickland, Catholic East Texas, Jul 29, 2019
It is stating the obvious to describe Jesus Christ as teacher and model of virtue. This statement would likely be embraced by any person educated in the Judeo-Christian culture of Western civilization. Whether believers or not, people tend to think of Jesus Christ as a good man. In fact, many nonbelievers tend to say that’s all he was: a nice man. As believers, though, we can embrace the concept of Jesus as a teacher and model of virtue. But what does that mean?
It seems fruitful to examine this notion from three basic perspectives. First, we can explore Jesus Christ as teacher and model of virtue in his incarnation. Second, we can study Jesus Christ as teacher and model of virtue during his earthly life in this world. Finally, we can ponder Jesus Christ as teacher and model of virtue as he leaves behind his Church guided by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus the Eternal Word
The eternal Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of God, became a human being. This calls to mind the prologue of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Greek word, logos, translated here as “Word,” by which all creation was made (John 1:3), means much more than just a string of letters. It is talking about the Second Person of the Trinity, but it can also mean “reason” or “rational.” St. John is in part echoing passages like Proverbs 3:19: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.”
God’s act of creation, and his creation itself, is ordered around rationality. In fact, when we talk about whether some human action is good or evil, we’re talking about whether it is in accord with reason; whether it is rational; whether it is in accord with how God created the universe.
All evil we do is irrational and contrary to the logic inherent in the universe. Living a life of virtue is to be in the habit of acting rationally, acting in accord with the truth. Indeed, Jesus Christ himself is the Truth (John 14:6). So, acting virtuously and rationally is to do what Jesus would do. It is to allow Christ, the Truth, to live through our actions. Sometimes this means abstaining from certain pleasures. Other times it means courageously speaking out and taking action when to do so is difficult, embarrassing, or dangerous.
St. Augustine taught that the same rationality by which the universe was created was begotten by God and “condescended also to be created among men” (De Fide et Symbolo 4.6). Jesus teaches and models virtue with his very essence as he takes on our flawed nature. The great angelic Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, taught that the Word took on the defects of our nature so that “he might become an example of virtue to us” (Summa Theologiae III:15:1). That is, Jesus took on all the defects of our nature except irrationality and sin (Heb 4:15, 1 Pet 2:22, John 8:46). Fr. Joshua Neu’s article in this issue of Catholic East Texas makes it clear that all sin is irrational and that acting virtuously is acting in accord with right reason.
Jesus the Perfect Man
Of course, from the moment of his conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary to His ascension to the Father, Christ was profoundly teaching and modeling virtue. As St. John’s Gospel says, the world could not contain the books that could be written to describe the mystery of God’s Son incarnate. Everything he said and did in his earthly life was at least in part to teach and be a model of virtue for us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches exactly what it takes to be happy, to live the “blessed” life. One must live a virtuous life. To be happy, we must be humble, meek, and repentant of our sins. We must desire goodness, we must forgive, we must be innocent, and we must control our desires and tempers. Most of all, we must cling to Christ over all the goods this world has to offer. Luke Heintschel’s article in this issue of Catholic East Texas describes the beatitudes of Christ in more depth. One example of how Jesus is a model of virtue for us is his passion and death. In St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, when he asks whether Christ ought to have suffered on the cross, he gives seven reasons for why it was fitting for our blessed Lord to have suffered and died. The first is this: he did so “as an example of virtue” (III:46:4). Jesus practiced what he preached. The final beatitude is, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt 5:11). Mikki Sciba’s article later in this issue show us that enduring suffering with peaceful perseverance is indeed a virtue. It is the all-important virtue of patience.
Jesus’ Body: The Church
In his earthly life, as Jesus taught his disciples about virtue, they were rightly astounded. In Matthew 19, their response to his teachings is astonishment and the question, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt 19:25). Jesus’ answer to this question should initially terrify us: “With men, this is impossible . . .” Impossible! If it is impossible for us to live a virtuous life, if it is impossible for us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), then what is the point?
“With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). When he ascended to the Father, Christ did not simply leave us to try to follow that model and those teachings without any assistance. Jesus Christ left us with a Church and the sacraments in order to bestow on us the grace that actually makes possible the impossible. The seven sacraments are the gifts of God that empower us to live out his teachings and imitate his virtuous example.
No, you can’t do it alone. But that’s why we have the sacraments. The seven sacraments are special signs of Jesus continuing to teach and model virtue in our world. That’s why he washes us clean in the waters of baptism. That’s why he gives us absolution in confession. However, grace is not merely about forgiving our sins, but also about giving us divine life, allowing Christ to live virtuously through us.
Central to this study is our deep faith that he is really present in the consecrated bread and wine, the sacred species that are his body and blood given to us as food. That is why Christ gives himself to us in the Eucharist.
Jesus teaches and models virtue in the entire mystery of the Eucharist, and this is echoed in marvelous ways in each of the seven sacraments. They all teach us that the virtues that Christ lived in his earthly journey as a flesh-and-blood man continue to be modeled in the life of the Church and his disciples. Not only do they teach us this, but they also enable us to participate in that life of virtue. This is the basis for our hope that we can be saved. It is not hope in our ability, but hope in the promises of Christ. Fr. Justin Braun expands more on the virtue of hope later in this issue.
Gospel virtues are sorely needed in our world, which is increasingly secularized and sterilized of the richness that faith brings to the human story. What better point of reflection than to go to the Lord of virtue, the Truth himself, to spiritually sit at his feet and be taught what it means to be virtuous?