Love is the Fulfillment of the Law
Imagine with me a world in which there are no mutually agreed-upon rules for behavior between individuals. Each day, the members of such a society would awaken without any pre-set guidelines or pathways for how they will treat others they meet or how they will themselves be treated. Will I get a chance to eat a good meal today, without having to prove I am stronger or more deserving of food than someone else is? Will my parents protect me and help me to learn what I need to know to support myself and a family when I am grown? Will my children help care for me when I am old and need help getting out of bed in the morning? If my friends and I want to play a game, will there be rules for all to follow as part of the game?
Life in this type of world would be very stressful. As social beings, we humans depend on each other for lots of things. We begin as infants, totally unable to care for ourselves, totally dependent on others. We learn what to expect by watching others and by the way we ourselves are treated. Yet a child as young as six months recognizes its own mother and may object strenuously to seeing mother hold another child, even if the “child” is a nearly life-size doll. “Mama should be holding me, not that other child!”
In order to live together in harmony, humans set up social agreements. In larger societies, some of those agreements become laws, rules that everyone agrees are for the best. We may have laws that are decreed from on high (as in the Hebrew Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai). We may have laws laid down by a king or queen. We may have laws passed by our representatives in a body established to govern and protect our mutual interests.
Laws don’t always resolve all possible issues between and among people(s). Some laws are unfair to those who have less power than others. Some laws are disliked because they protect the rights of those who have less power! Regardless of how much we like or dislike a law, we need to have them in order for life to move along smoothly each day.
During the years of the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel heard the Lord’s order to speak out when he witnessed wrongdoing, the breaking of the rules for life set down centuries earlier. (Ez 33:7-9) Those who heard the warning and continued to break the law, would be punished by death. But those who stopped their evil ways would live. The twist on this whole prophecy was that if Ezekiel did not speak out and warn those doing evil, then he would also be punished for the evil they did because he would be partially responsible for it. It’s not a question of everyone being responsible only for their own actions. Those who hear the Lord’s voice and know what is right, must also look out for those who are not living justly. We have a responsibility to each other.
Jesus told his followers something similar. (Mt 18:15-20) If someone harms an individual, the injured one is to take it up with the one who has caused the harm. They are to come to terms and become reconciled with each other. If they can’t find a way to do that, then the injured party is to call others of the community as witnesses to the attempt to become reconciled. Eventually, if the entire community can’t find a way to lead the offender back into compliance with the rules of the community, that person can be excluded from the life of the community.
This reading has been interpreted very harshly historically and even sometimes today. People have been tossed out of their homes or communities or shunned because they are unable or unwilling to conform exactly to the teaching of the tradition. And yet, we know that rules and traditions change with time. What was seen as worthy of death in the past may now be seen as part of the normal range of human behavior. We have learned much about human development and psychology. We understand the role of trauma and neglect in the lives of people. We know that illness is not caused by evil spirits or winds but rather by bacteria, viruses, or imbalances in chemical systems in the body. Responsibility for physical conditions cannot always be laid at the foot of the person who experiences them.
And yet, Jesus tells the disciples, “If two or more of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted by my heavenly Father.” Does this mean that everything a couple of us decide should be done will be done by the Father? That could be a problem, right? It’s far too easy to mess things up when we are angry or upset. Better to leave some things for God to decide.
The other very important lesson here is that Jesus is present in the community. We need to talk with each other and pray together. That’s part of the reason we are having the Synodal process right now in the Church. Pope Francis has asked all of us to share our insights into the challenges facing our community and what we need to do to address them. It has been fascinating to see that many of the same issues are being raised by people around the world. Soon the results of the listening will be presented to a group of leaders of the Church for their consideration and reflection. “Where two or more are gathered together in my name….”
The bottom line in all of this is summed up by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans. (Rm 13:8-10) So many laws, both human and religious, are based on rules about what must not be done by one person to another. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. But deep below the requirement not to injure others is a positive command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Those who truly love do not do evil to another person or community. Because love is the underlying foundation, it also becomes the fulfillment of The Law, the way our Father hopes and wishes all to live.
As we move through this coming week, may we listen deeply for the voice of the Lord, particularly as related to a loving response to the challenges we face in dealing with each other and the problems we share as members of the human community in this world. May we keep our eyes and ears open to the many ways the Lord speaks to us, especially the most subtle ones. “Love does no evil to the neighbor … love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A