Going Deeper with The Law
In the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says several times, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you…” (Mt 5:17-37) Each of the things Jesus says takes the requirement farther than the original teaching from Mosaic Law seemed to go. It’s not enough to refrain from murdering someone, even getting angry and holding on to the anger is too much. It’s not enough not to be unfaithful to a spouse. Even harboring unfaithful thoughts is too much. It’s not enough not to swear a false oath. Don’t swear oaths at all. You really have no way to back it up.
We so often are tempted to split hairs. Well, she didn’t really say I couldn’t stop for ice cream on the way home, she just said to come home! Well, it’s only a little untruthful, what difference will that make? What right does he have to tell me what to do anyway? It won’t hurt anything to do it my way instead! And so we justify what we want to do, regardless of what is asked of us.
But Jesus wants us to look at the underlying meaning of the commandments. How do we live out the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. It’s in the spirit of the law that we learn the wisdom of God and choose life. He was very clear on this. He didn’t come to overturn the Law. He came to fulfill it.
Does that mean that we have to take everything we hear in scripture at face value, even if our culture is very different from Jesus’ culture? No. But we need to understand what the reasoning was for his teachings. For example, when he speaks of divorce, it is about a different social reality than we know today in our Western culture. In his time and culture, a man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man. Beyond that, once a woman was married, she was the responsibility of her husband’s family. Her family was no longer responsible to support her in any way. If her husband divorced her, there was no one to look out for her. She had no income, no home, no support. That’s why Jesus spoke of such women as having to commit adultery. It was the only way a lot of them could survive, but their survival method put them in violation of the letter and spirit of the law.
How about that business of gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand that causes us to sin? Not to be taken literally at all. But we need to act definitively sometimes to cut out the things from our lives that lead us to make the wrong choice or to go down the wrong road. If watching TV in the evening leads me to get angry with the baby who interrupts my watching, it’s not the baby’s fault. I need to cut out the TV watching. If having the computer in my bedroom leads me to watch YouTube rather than do my homework, maybe I need to keep and use the computer only in a public area of my home. If being around people who are smoking or drinking makes me want to do it too, or if I can’t resist their offers to join in, maybe I need to hang out with other people.
Sirach (15:15-20), long ago, presented a series of choices the Lord offers that ring true today. Fire or water? Life or death? Hang on to anger and revenge – you’ve chosen a fire that will eat at you and eventually destroy you. Choose water and you can be washed clean of the anger and other negative emotions – you are choosing life. Wisdom comes as we choose the path of life again and again over time. And sometimes, it comes as a result of having to turn from the wrong choices and the messes that have resulted when we made them. Turning from death to life.
God doesn’t force us to do anything we don’t want to do. That is a key reality of love. Freedom to choose. But God also doesn’t shield us from the consequences of our choices. God is simply there to help us pick up the pieces when we realize our mistake and make better choices the next time around. Then God gives us a big hug to let us know how much we are loved, even when we mess things up royally.
So, as we listen to the readings from Sirach, St. Paul (1 Cor 2:6-10), and the Gospel today, with all of these more demanding instructions, let’s remember that we are called to hear a deeper meaning to the rules. We’re to hear the meaning that seeks to call us to be our best selves and choose the path of life and love rather than sinking more deeply into the morass of anger, selfishness, deceit, and all that goes with them, all the while thinking we are keeping the rules as they are literally formulated. We are called to go deeper.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A