Commands Are Not Ideals

wooden last supper

“For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:15). Our Lord told the apostles this at the Last Supper. Later on Jesus tells the apostles that they are to love one another as He has loved them (John 13:34), that if they truly love Him they will keep His commandments (John 14:15), and that He will send the Spirit of Truth to be with them and that Jesus Himself will be with the apostles for all time and make His abode with them (John 14: 21-24). There are at least two essential elements to these events. First, Christ gives the apostles a commission to do as He did by following His example. Second, He gives the apostles the means by which they are to carry out their task, namely the Spirit and Christ Himself who will make His abode in the apostles themselves.

There has been a tendency of late to suggest that the commands of the Gospel are an ideal. In several places in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis refers to the “ideals” of the Gospel and of marriage. Other close advisors of the Pope seem to suggest that at least some of the commandments Jesus gives us in the Gospel are ideals. What I want to argue in this article is that the Lord meant what He said literally. Specifically, He wants us to live in accord with His commandments, not strive for ideals. The key to this claim is that Jesus’ commandments call us to love God and neighbor. Two strong reasons in support of this are the facts that Jesus assures the apostles that He will send them the Spirit to comfort them and that they should not be afraid. These assurances indicate that Christ understands how hard the task ahead is and that He will give the apostles all that they need so that they can carry out their charge successfully. Christ gives us the same grace and strength through His ministers in the present day to live out His commandments.

Ideals vs Reality

As someone with philosophical training, when I hear the word “ideal” I think of Plato’s theory of forms. Plato (in a nutshell) argues that in order to account for the intelligibility of the world we need to make recourse to forms. Forms are the archetypes of everything that exists in the material world. For example, all squares in this world are images of the Form of Squareness. The point I want to illustrate is that for Plato, nothing in this world can perfectly embody the ideal. Everything in the material world falls short of the forms.

We can recognize the truth of this even if we don’t subscribe to Plato’s theory. No square is perfectly square, there is always some minute variation from the ideal. No society in the history of the world has ever been perfectly just. And no human has ever led a perfect life (with the obvious exclusions of Our Lord and His Mother). The language of ideals seems to imply, therefore, a dichotomy between what is achievable in the concrete world and what would be best if it were possible. Another characteristic of ideals is that they lie primarily in the realm of knowledge and ideas. Ideals are objects of understanding and goals we reach for, but they are not necessarily attainable in the fullest degree. We often hear some variation of the phrase, “That would be ideal, but if we/you could just do this, that would be fine.” However, the commands that our Lord gives us in the Gospel are not like this. This is because the commandments of the Gospel depend upon love.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that “to love God is something greater than to know Him.” The reason is that our intellect is discursive. That is to say, the intellect has to break things down and understand them piece by piece through a process of reasoning. The human mind has to bring things down to its level, so to speak, in order to understand. Love, however, is not discursive but all encompassing. Love is an act and desire of the will to do what is good for the glory of  God and the good of our neighbor simply because it is good. In this way, love draws us out of ourselves and commands us to act. It allows us to strive for God, and our neighbor in a way mere knowing cannot.

Ideals are primarily in the realm of knowledge, as we have seen, and are not necessarily attainable. But the commands of the Lord depend upon love which is more than mere knowledge. We must do the will of the Father and keep His commandments, not merely proclaim high truths and ideals if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 7:21). And the will of the Father is that we are to love Him and our neighbor (Mt. 22:38-40; John 14:23-24). Indeed, the Lord will judge us at the end of days according to our works, according to how we showed our love for Him and our neighbor (Mt. 25:31-46). We are judged, then, not according to how well we lived up to an ideal, but whether or not we actually did what the Lord has commanded us.

The Commands of The Lord

As our Lord said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And at the Last Supper, He told the apostles that He left an example so that they should do as He did (John 13:15).  Jesus does not say, “strive to keep my commandments”, which would make sense if His commandments were ideals. He says to keep my commandments; do what I did. St. John tells us that the love of God is to keep His commandments and that His commandments are not a burden to us (1 John 5:3-4).  St. John also tells us that our faith is the divine principle by which we will conquer the world (1 John 5:4-5). This language, I submit, strongly implies that the commands of the Lord are not ideals that we should strive towards. Rather, they are meant to be and are capable of being lived out to the fullest.

Now, none of this implies that we should not study the scriptures or the commands of the Lord. This is not meant as an exercise in anti-intellectualism. Love does require and presupposes knowledge and we should study the scriptures and commands of the Lord as much as we are able. The point, however, is that the Lord’s commandments are neither exclusively nor primarily for our understanding. That is to say, they were not given to us just so that we can have a consistent set of theories and doctrine (though the Church has that) or beautiful things to say in homilies. They are the words of eternal life (John 6:68) and they were given to us so that by living them out we will have a share in the life of the Lord. It is better, therefore, to be a poor, simple man with a basic understanding of scripture and the catechism who lives out what they teach than a great theologian who never gives to the poor. Better to be Lazarus at the gate than the rich man at the table (Luke 16:19-31).

There is at least one great danger in implying or teaching that the commands of the Gospel are ideals. The danger is a denial of the efficacy of the grace of God. As we saw above, Jesus gives us faith by which we can conquer the world. The Lord, therefore, is equipping us to act in the world. It does not seem to make sense then to prepare us for action only to give us a command that cannot necessarily be realized. If Jesus’ commandments are ideals, then that raises at least two questions. Why would God command something we cannot necessarily attain? Is His grace ineffectual in helping us to attain the ideal? Perhaps one can answer that it is in the striving towards an ideal that we become better people, and so even if we don’t attain the ideal, we still become better in the process which is what God’s grace helps us to do. This cannot be the case, however, because Jesus doesn’t just want us to become better. He wants us to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:28). He promises to make His abode in those that love Him. How can the Lord abide in someone if the love commanded by the Gospel is an unattainable ideal?

In order to avoid this danger and others, we must affirm with St. Paul that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). Living out the Gospel is an extraordinarily difficult task. Jesus Himself even likened the Gospel to a hard, narrow path that few would find (Mt. 7: 13-14). But our Lord also promised that He would not leave the disciples as orphans (John 14:18) and that whoever receives the disciples receives Jesus Himself (Mt.10:40). That is how we receive the strength of Christ in the present day. When we go to the descendants of the disciples for confession, for Mass, and for all of the other sacraments, we are receiving the Lord Himself. By receiving Him we receive the strength we need to live His commandments and conquer the world. Let us, therefore, ardently seek out Our Lord in His ministers and love the least of His brethren. And let us go into our inner room (Mt. 6:6) and pray that these same ministers will have the grace to bear witness to the commandments of Gospel and make the love of the Lord known to all the world.

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10 thoughts on “Commands Are Not Ideals”

  1. But what about Mt. 5:27-30 where Jesus states, “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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.” Those were direct statements (albeit not specifically Commandments) from Jesus. Was Jesus exaggerating here or speaking literally?

    1. Great question! I just want to preface my remarks by saying that I am no
      theologian and have no theological training; I am a philosopher. I
      think Jesus is using the imagery of cutting and plucking out body parts
      to show that His commands and the Christian way of life are demanding
      and have eternal consequences. No, Jesus does not want us to literally
      cut off our hands or pluck our eyes out. The message I think He is
      conveying is: “Do whatever is necessary to avoid sin. Take drastic
      measures if you have to because in avoiding sin you will gain the ‘pearl
      of great price.’ If you do not avoid your sins, you will suffer eternal
      death.” In this passage Christ is reminding us of the cost of sin and
      of the demands of discipleship. Many times those demands require a lot
      of us, but they are infinitely worth it. So the message is literal but
      put in a metaphorical way. Christ wants us to avoid sin by all means at
      our disposal because Heaven is our true home and we must be sinless to
      get there. He uses the image of cutting off body parts to illustrate the
      lengths at which we should go to reach heaven. We should be willing to
      give up everything for God. Now that message, I submit, can only
      properly be understood if we admit that, with the Lord’s help, we
      actually have to reach that level of perfection and holiness. Just
      think; who goes through such drastic measures just to try and fulfill a
      mere “ideal”?

    2. Thanks for responding. I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with your definition of what “ideal” means though. One definition of ideal is a person or thing regarded as perfect. Another is when we satisfy one’s conception of what is perfect. So, when Jesus tells his apostles/disciples to be perfect like your heavenly Father (i.e. to fit God’s ideal), isn’t that the same thing? I also don’t understand your use of parentheses in your response, beginning with “Do whatever is…” Are you quoting something here?

      To answer your last question, to quote from the movie Batman Begins, when Ducard (Liam Neeson) is speaking to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), he inspires Bruce while he’s in a Chinese prison to become the Batman when he says, “No, no, no. A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.” So, my answer is Batman.

    3. Your definition of justice is essentially what I gave in the column, i.e., an ideal is an archetype or perfect image or idea of whatever thing or course of action that happens to be under consideration. My point was that typically we don’t regard ideals as things that are necessarily achievable. They are just good targets to shoot at. This implies that it’s not necessarily bad to fall short of an ideal. When Jesus tells us to be perfect like the Father, He is not telling us to live up to an ideal, rather, He is telling us what is expected of us. The fact that He equips us to act in this world, gives us the sacraments, and tells us to not be afraid are all indications that He did not mean his words and commands to be taken as unattainable ideals. He really wants us to be perfect. At least that’s what I was trying to argue above. I just used the quotations to demarcate what I thought was the core message of Christ’s words in the gospel you quoted from my own analysis.

      The batman example is interesting, but it still don’t think it seriously damages my point. As I said in the last paragraph some people may argue that we become better when we strive for an ideal and that is what God intends. It is true that we may become better if we devote ourselves to the right ideals, but it doesn’t follow that God merely wants us to be better. As I argued, He wants us to be perfect. The gist of Ducard’s message to Wayne seems to be that Wayne should devote himself to being selfless and doing what is right for others.The stuff about becoming something “different entirely” from a man just seems to be hyperbole to make a point get Wayne to change his life.

    4. I can’t believe we’re arguing about Batman. I was sort of kidding about someone that fulfills an ideal since he’s a character and not a man. However, since we’re already arguing this, the idea behind the character of Batman was to create a superhero that was only a man. He doesn’t have super powers. All he has is money, some technology, and, to my earlier point, incredible will power, determination, and a devotion to an ideal. When Ducard says that Wayne can become more than just a man but something else entirely, I think that parallels Christ’s words to His followers of becoming perfect as God is perfect. Thus, devoting ourselves to an ideal.

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  4. Dear Christian-You may have no idea the can of theological worms you have spilt here-and they are worms of truth. Thank you. No idea because Jorge Bergoglio has announced a synod having something to do with ” vocations”-and if his ghost writers are true to form, and the synod program is followed as with the last synod on adultery (not family) we are going to hear something about women having less-than-all of the “ideal” of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The ghost writers are preparing a document or documents right now saying not that a dog’s tail is a leg and therefore that a dog has five legs, but that Jesus’s Command Of the Lord that only males can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders either is not His Command or that it no longer applies, or worse, that we can disobey this Divine Command under the guise of the “ideal” of Holy Orders. I urge you to read 1Cor 14:37 and Manfred Hauke’s WOMEN IN THE PRIESTHHOOD, especially IX, 3. beginning at page 474. Jesus did not institute an ideal of a sacrament of Holy Orders, or of any sacrament, or that women can somehow have a part of it or share in the ideal somewhat-nope, Jesus commanded that ONLY men can be ordained. Please pursue this and never never give up. Guy McClung, Texas

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