THE PLACE OF GOD’S LAW IN OUR LIVES
SIRACH 15:15-20; 1 CORINTHIANS 2:6-10; MATTHEW 5:17-37
In our daily living, we are quite familiar with laws. Society is full of laws, and it is governed by many laws. Laws regulate order and stability in a society. Without these, our society becomes chaotic and disordered. Yet, naturally, human beings resist laws and authority. It doesn’t matter where that authority lies. Children resist the authority of their parents. Spouses resist each other. Students resist the instructions of their teachers. Citizens resist state laws, etc. We do not like to hear people telling us what we can do and what not to do. In our modern time, some people enjoy resisting anything called “tradition”. They believe that anything NEW equals BETTER. They even conclude that the Bible, as our authority, is old fashioned.
- JESUS’ THOUGHTS ON THE LAW OF GOD
In today’s gospel, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronts this kind of thinking. He gives us his thoughts on the importance of the Jewish laws and the necessity to obey them. Meanwhile, the religious leaders of his time think he is resistant to the Law of God. They accuse him of trying to build a new religion. They see him as some kind of a heretic. Jesus countered by affirming (in the strongest terms) the authority of God’s Word. He says He is not trying to overthrow God’s Word (Law). He is seeking to honor and fulfill it. “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” (Mtt 5:17-18).
As teacher, Jesus was different from the prevailing teachers and scribes at the time. The latter’s teachings were simply confined to quoting the Scriptures which can be seen in the phrases, “God said…” or “It is written…” But Jesus is different from them because he comments and perfects these laws. Often in his teachings, he would say: “You have heard the commandment… But now I say to you.” Indeed, as God or the Son of God, Jesus teaches with authority. By his authoritative teaching, Jesus tells us:
- a) God’s Word is timeless in its relevance and power. Not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. God does not change. His standards do not evolve (or devolve as in our case). He does not have to rethink, revise, or reinterpret what He said. What God says is right is always right.
- b) God’s Word is authoritative. When the Bible speaks there is nothing else to be said. The Creator of things has spoken. There is no legislature, court, or public opinion poll that negates that authority. Since we resist this notion of authority, some people ask “why should we submit to the authority of a Book that was written so long ago?” Many things (such as scientific and astronomical “facts”) have been “corrected” as we learned more. We tend to assume the Bible is the same. No! God knows all things. Science and astronomy are disciplines of men. So is psychology, sociology, medicine, philosophy and so forth. As such they are flawed and need to be constantly revised. Not so, is the Word of God.
Just as modern people scrupulously follow the orders of a technician when using a machine produced by that ‘expert’; just as a sick person keeps to the doctor’s instructions in order to restore his/her health, so also do human being need to follow the instructions of God on how to live life (created and sustained by the same God).
- c) Obedience to God’s Word is Expected.It is not enough to KNOW the Word of God. We are also expected to do it. Jesus states clearly, “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” (Mtt 5:19-20). We are to respect and obey God’s Law. Obeying God’s Law will show us how to walk with God. God expects us to respect Him. He expects us to trust Him enough to know that he knows what is best for us. You would trust the designer or engineer of a piece of equipment because he/she designed that equipment in a specific way for a specific purpose. He/she knows how and what it can do well and what it cannot do well. It is the same for us. God’s Word is not given simply so that God can coerce us to do things as an exercise of His power. God gave us his Word so we could know him and enjoy him. He gave us his Word so we would know how we were designed to live. Transgressing these laws may not bring any immediate consequences, but you cannot keep using something in a way it was not intended to be used without problems developing. It is the same with us. If we ignore God’s commands, we will be pushing things to the limit.
Today, Jesus tells us that we do not only need to obey; we need to encourage others to do so as well.
- RIGHTEOUSNESS SURPASSES THAT OF THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mtt 5:20).
The people listening to Jesus must have found this statement very startling. The Pharisees were considered the religious conservatives today. They believed the Word of God was to be obeyed. And they sought to obey it very carefully. The Pharisees even put together a number of laws that were designed to help people keep from disobeying the laws of God. To demand that our righteousness should be greater than theirs seemed impossible to the ordinary Jew. However, Jesus was not saying that people needed to do more things than the Pharisees did.
Jesus was simply saying, “If you want to get to Heaven you will need a better righteousness than what the Pharisees can muster. AND THAT IS WHY I AM HERE.” Jesus makes it possible for you and me to be righteous because of Him. The righteousness that Jesus brings is credited to us because of what Jesus himself did. Jesus illustrates what he means in the next several statements in the Sermon on the Mount. In each illustration, Jesus begins by quoting the Law. Then he says, we must go beyond what the law requires.
- You know you shouldn’t kill; I’m saying you shouldn’t hate
- You know you shouldn’t commit adultery; I say you shouldn’t even lust.
- You know you shouldn’t swear falsely: I say don’t swear at all, just be honest
- You have heard you should punish someone in the same way they hurt you; I say turn the other cheek.
- You have heard that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy; I say you should love your enemy.
Jesus is not saying that we need to carry out more pious acts than the Pharisees did. He is saying we need to obey DEEPER. It is about the heart and not just about actions.
- GOD’S LAW AND CHARITY
According to Jesus, laws and rules are important but when imposed rigidly, they do not only become burdensome but also ruin the real spirit of the law. Contrary to the tedious interpretations imposed by the established religious leaders (Pharisees), Jesus went beyond the letter of the law, exposing the underlying purpose and the MOTIVE for keeping it.
For instance, the Scribes and Pharisees during Christ’s time were unbending in observing the law of the Sabbath. Any kind of activity was forbidden. But the Lord opposed this by healing the sick or doing good works, saying “the Sabbath was made for men and not men for the Sabbath.” Moreover, the Pharisees imposed animal offerings as part of Jewish tradition, but the worshippers in the temple had to buy them only from their own shops, and at a much higher price. The people, especially the poor as captive market, were exploited. Jesus openly condemned this interpretation of the law.
In short, the Lord allowed exceptions to the law for acts of charity.
- WHAT IS THE REASON FOR JESUS TO SAY ALL THIS?
- a) Jesus wants to stimulate a more genuine worship in God’s people. God is not interested is the fact that we are merely going through the motions. He wants us to love Him, adore Him, and desire to serve Him. It would like saying, “I not only want a mate who comes home every night and doesn’t cheat, I want a mate who loves me and who will spend time with me and share their life with me. I think this is what God wants from us.
- b) He wanted his listeners to see how desperately they need a Saviour. Once you start evaluating behaviour and add thought and motivation to the evaluation you realize that even our best deeds are often motivated by wrong motives. The idea of having a righteousness greater that the Pharisees may shake us up enough that we will cry out to Jesus because we cannot do what we know we should be doing. We have to recognize our great need before we will search for and reach for a great Savior. In fact, the hardest people are to convert are those who do not think they need conversion. Life is good (at present) and they believe they do not need God to get to where they are (or so they think).
The people however who realize what God’s standard really is, all of a sudden will see how far short they fall from this standard. Seeing this, they become more reliant on God.
Life is not just about following a set of rules. These rules are a guide to live by, not a guide in the liberal sense, but to be used as a foundation to be built upon. God has given us the commandments, and as the First Reading states: If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you…. And before all of us are life and death, good and evil, and whichever we choose we shall be given. We have been given a guide to live by and this framework is designed to give us life, protect us, and save us.
Even today’s Responsorial Psalm reminds us: “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord”. But Saint Paul goes on to say in today’s Second Reading that there is a wisdom that is not of this day, a wisdom for the mature. It is the wisdom of God. It is mysterious and hidden. Yet God, in the form of Christ reveals to his disciples and to us that the law is not to be abolished, but fulfilled. God has laid a foundation for us. He desires our response, and encourages our growth in holiness. He has come to show us the way, giving us example after example that fulfilling the law means looking beyond the literal words, and looking for the deeper message. Jesus said, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow”. But then, he goes on to say, “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no, anything more is from the devil.”
As Catholics, we are called to keep God’s laws by being always honest and truthful, even in the smallest of matters. We are called to a life of simplicity in whatever we are allotted as our daily tasks. We must ask ourselves: Are we willing to take the extra step?