The “spirit” of the law

Laws are made to be fulfilled, not broken

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Occasion: Sunday, February 12th, 2017 Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Gospel.

Reading

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

“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.

“It was also said,
Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.
But I say to you,
whoever divorces his wife –  unless the marriage is unlawful –
causes her to commit adultery,
and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath,
but make good to the Lord all that you vow.

But I say to you, do not swear at all;
not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the evil one.”

Standout words

fulfillbut I saysettle quickly

Reflection

When one distinguishes the “spirit” of the law from its “letter,” what does that mean? A scrupulous driver who hates speeding might complain after getting off a busy highway, “I may not have followed the letter of the law, but at least I followed its spirit.” On the other hand, a common perception people hold about lawyers is that they find creative ways to violate the law’s spirit while assiduously observing its letter. Then there’s the attitude that “Laws are made to be broken,” letter and spirit notwithstanding.

The Sermon on the Mount is in full swing in today’s Gospel, and our Lord is having none of these “escape clauses.” To the contrary, he states that he does not abolish the Law of Moses, but rather fulfills it. Christianity does not set itself in opposition to its “elder brothers in the faith,” as if they failed to keep the light of faith burning through the ages, or as if they were some inherently wicked and accursed race, or as if — in the case of Marcionism — their law were an invention of a false or lesser god who opposes to the true God. No! Christianity fulfills the Law of Moses. We are not a new tree planted after uprooting the old one; we find ourselves grafted onto a tree that already existed.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for the common Christian? It is common, perhaps natural, and at times a positive good, for us to try and fulfill the minimum requirements specified for a task. On the one hand, as long as the minimum requirements are fulfilled, outright perfection is unnecessary, and may even delay completion or make it impossible; as the saying goes, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” On the other hand, doing a job “good enough” frees us to do more work, the marginal gains from one “good enough” to one “even better” can be vastly outweighed by lots of “good enough’s.” If you doubt me, think about all the ways your home could be “even better” than it is now, then ask yourself why it isn’t already.

Popular spirituality likes to apply this very real limitation of the material world to the spiritual realm, as well, but our Lord is having none of this: Your righteousness, he warns us, must surpass that of those who came before us. We who are in Christ must, like him, fulfill the Law, not abolish it and replace it with one of our own. The “task” at stake is our union with God; in a word, our salvation. Pardon the language, but: you can’t half-ass your way into heaven. Don’t take my word for it; the book of Revelation itself tells us that nothing impure shall enter God’s holy city. You don’t even have to go that far; just read what comes next in the Gospel.

First, our Lord speaks as neither a scripture scholar nor a theologian. I don’t say this to disparage them; after all,they speak in service of God’s words. Our Lord, however, speaks as if those words are his own. He speaks as a judge with authority to clarify: You have heard… but I say that… Many of his listeners found themselves taken aback at such language.

How, precisely, does Jesus clarify the Law of Moses? Notice that he reaffirms the moral law, not the ritual law; the Sermon on the Mount is silent about the number of ablutions you must perform before a meal. Rather, it is as if our Lord says, “This is the essence of the Law, its immutable core; this you may neither modify nor water down. This, rather, you must fulfill.

How shall we fulfill it? Every honest Christian will surely pause upon reading Christ’s clarification. Our merciful Lord does not exactly lessen the law’s rigor, does he?

  • Thou shalt not kill — I have not killed, so I am “okay.”
    It is not enough, he tells us, not to kill: hatred, anger, even a harsh word (“Raqa”) leads us astray from this commandment. The greatest commandments tell us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength; from this, we receive love that overflows to our neighbors. Love’s divine light harbors no shadow.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery — well, I may not be perfect, but I’ve done what can be expected here.
    It is not enough, he tells us, to avoid adultery. Even a lustful thought leads us astray from this commandment. In this context, even “your hand” can cause you to sin against the law of adultery. Divine love is chaste, but fecund; if we are to become like God, we too must become chaste, and fecund — not necessarily celibate, mind, but chaste. Love’s divine light harbors no shadow.
    (An aside. If you’ve ever heard someone ask where Jesus says anything about sex, these verses give you an answer. A plain reading shows that our Lord condemns pornography, masturbation, and divorce, without condemning those who fall to them, just as his Church does and must do, even today! God loves everything about you, and so everything matters.)
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness — well, when I really mean the truth, I swear on the Bible.
    It is not enough, he tells us, for “yes” to mean “yes” sometimes and “well, sort of, maybe, no not really, see my fingers are crossed” on others. God does not tell us “yes” with his fingers crossed behind his back! He does not offer half-truths or white lies to flatter us and make us think we’re okay as we are — we’re not. We must tell the truth, for the truth does not hurt; the truth sets us free. What hurts are the lies we tell ourselves. Love’s divine light harbors no shadow.

Observe the pattern: Christ restates a commandment, which even “good-enough” Christians generally think they follow, but he takes the commandment further, showing that fulfilling “the least of these commandments” includes sins to which few honest Christians can deny having succumbed. Apply this to the entirety of the law, and you quickly grasp why the proclamation of the kingdom begins with, “Repent!” and the life of grace adorns Christ’s mercy with a sacrament.

What to make of this? Do these things not matter? To the contrary, our Lord’s words are unmistakably clear: our righteousness must not be a ritual righteousness, but rather a sharing in divine righteousness. In just a few verses, he will re-affirm this: we must be perfect as our heavenly Father. But to accomplish this is not something of our own doing; these admonitions tell us not how to create our own grace, but how to use the grace God freely offers. For this, we have each other; the community of the Church, to accompany each other, to share light when we find ourselves in shadow, and to lift our eyes to the light at the end of the Way.

Author: Jack Perry

Catholic. Mathematician. Square monomial diagram in a round avatar's circle.

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