Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Joy and Gift of the Law

Twenty Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

Last week, I broached the topic of Catholics leaving the Church, some having opted for a watered down version of Christianity served with just the ideal cocktail of humanistic ideology with a brisk and relevant motivational message stirred right in. In other words, a sort of self-improvement programme that leaves it’s dotting fans with a ‘feel-good,’ ‘I’m OK You’re OK’, ‘I want more of this!’ experience every Sunday. This week, the readings deliberately lead us further down another slippery slope to confront a yet more explosive cocktail, this time made up of laws, legalism and religion.

Many would claim that legalism is the Church’s death of a thousand cuts (I believe that this form of execution which is of Chinese origin is vividly self-explanatory). When critics speak of ‘Legalism’ in the context of the Church, they are referring to the Church’s seemingly obsessive preoccupation with laws. In spite of this criticism, many Catholics do often seem to be preoccupied with matter of laws. “Father, can we eat meat on Friday?” “Father, how many times can you receive communion on Sunday?” Critics would, of course, explain this behaviour as the result of relentless conditioning by the Church. They complain that the Catholic Church has too many rules and restrictions which have resulted in its members being weighed down by heavy shackles. The basis for this accusation is the belief that the Church and Laws, or to be more specific Jesus and Laws are antithetical. If Jesus was the personification of Love which liberates and includes, the Pharisees, his antonymous counterparts, personified the Law which enslaves and excludes. The oft quoted argument is that if Jesus were alive to do, he would abolish the regime of law in favour of a kingdom based on love. But would Jesus really do this?

A careful reading of today’s scriptural passages would reveal an entirely different picture.  To understand the first reading which is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, which literally means, the ‘Second Law’, it is helpful to remember the very positive view of God’s Law adopted by the Israelites and later the Jews. The Law was considered a gift from God that set Israel apart from other nations. Whereas the law codes of other nations functioned as necessary safeguards of individual rights and as a means to redress wrong, Israel understood the Law as a communication from God which imparted favor and blessings. Far from feeling constricted or inhibited by the Law, they felt that it illumined their path in life.

Although the Law was described by the Jews as a fence or wall around the Torah, designed to preserve and protect, it had become a virtual barrier and a burden which obscured God’s gift of the law and weighed heavily upon the hearts of the people. By the time of Jesus’ ministry the Law or at least the rabbinical extrapolations of it had become so detailed and cumbersome that ordinary people could not comprehend its complexities; their only recourse was to consult the scribes, experts in the law, who were able to guide others through the legal labyrinth. 

Jesus, for his part, cut through the legalism of his critics and spoke to the very heart of the matter. Purity or holiness would no longer be a matter of soap and water but of a lived faith which responds to God’s word and cooperates with God’s forgiving, cleansing grace. Jesus called his contemporaries (and us) to move beyond that hypocrisy which pays lip service but hides a sinful, devious heart behind impeccably washed hands. He rejected human legalism that had scarred the spirit of the Law, waylaid its purpose, and entrapped those subject to it under the heavy burden of senseless practices.

But was Jesus advocating anarchy, a state where we would not need laws? Is lawlessness part of the original ethos of Christianity proposed by Him? I do not believe that any scripture scholar worth his salt would dare to make this claim. If we define "legalistic" as the exhortation of others to obey and live by a set of rules or a rule of law, then anyone, especially Jesus could be seen as a "legalist". Notice the words with which Jesus prefaced his new teaching, “Hear me”. This is reminiscent of the fundamental commandment given to Israel who is called to hear and obey the law of God. In Deuteronomy 6:4 God prefaces the Law with these words, “Hear O Israel…” If you're going to argue that the Church is "legalistic", then you also need to accuse Christ of being "legalistic", and yet you follow his law without complaint? Are Christ's instructions in today’s gospel not also "law"?

So, having laws isn’t the issue at all. In fact, St. James in the second reading speaks of the law of God as “all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given to us from above.” It is given to us in order that we become the “first fruits of all that he had created”. Without God’s law to guide us, we will be lost in the confusion created by our own pride and selfishness. Therefore, the laws of God and his church are meant to help us become free from our own selfish motives and intentions. We know that laws are established to create boundaries and help guide our moral compasses, therefore serving our best interests. Without laws, we will descend into the muddy mire of relativism, where Truth is no longer objectively accessible. Moral relativism is the ethical approach asserting that what is important is the sincerity of our decision, nothing else. As long as you mean well it’s ok. But the goal of moral judging is not just to make a sincere judgment. It is also and even more ultimately, to do the truly right, truly helpful, constructive, life-giving thing. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the moral law is the work of divine wisdom. Its biblical meaning can be defined as fatherly instruction, God's pedagogy… It is at once firm in its precepts and, in its promises, worthy of love.” (CCC 1950)

On the other hand, we must also avoid the other extreme. There are many who slavishly follow the letter of the Law without understanding its Spirit, or its intent. We find these people often very judgmental of others. They see themselves as the perfect guardians of the Law and take it upon themselves to be the watchdogs of morality. Others are contented with performing the basic minimum requirements of the Law, for example, abstaining from meat on Fridays, but then gorge themselves silly on seafood, thus neglecting the spirit of the Law which is self-discipline and sacrifice in order that we may enter into solidarity with those who suffer. This is the legalism which Jesus condemns.

Legalism asserts that what is really central to moral living is obedience to the law. But morality is not an enterprise of obedience, it is an enterprise of wise and caring action. Sometimes we follow laws blindly. We do it only because we fear retribution. We must note that the Catholic’s tradition’s involvement in moral questions is not essentially a matter of rules, but of teachings. It is a matter of wisdom acquired, wisdom claimed, about how human persons can best serve one another. And it is a matter of sharing that wisdom, out of care for and commitment to the persons who are involved. Such wisdom is never satisfied with the minimum standards set by the Law. The wisdom of the Church’s teachings ultimately lead us to aim much higher, to aspire heavenly virtues, to reach for the sky, to surrender all and to even offer our lives in humble sacrifice for the grand prize of eternal life. Morality is never just about blind obedience but about firm conviction that comes from conversion.

Pursuing a moral life in accord with God’s grace does not depend simply on one’s own subjective feelings and judgment but on a conscience informed by the preaching and laws of Christ and the Church, sound religious education; a conscience guided by scripture, spiritual direction, and the witness and example of other believers. Catholics understand, therefore, that there are external resources that may guide a person to strive for an upright, holy life. All of these external resources combine over a lifetime to help form Christian character, whose goal is to imitate the Lord. These laws are never meant to kill joy and deprive us of our freedom. Laws do not render faith dull and love passionless. On the contrary, the laws serve as milestones and hedges to mark the certain path to freedom and glory. Laws when oriented to the ultimate good which is God himself, ultimately leads us to love. When we truly love, we realise that obeying laws is never just a matter of fulfilling an obligation. We do so freely and joyfully. The famous English convert to Catholicism at the turn of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton wrote (and while he was still Anglican, 14 years before he became a Catholic): “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”

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