Friday, February 10, 2017

Completing the Law

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

“Rules are meant to be broken” – according to the first law of the “Teenage Creed.” One would imagine that as one approaches adulthood, such a creed would be cast aside and supplanted with a less libertine laced outlook. Yet, reality reveals otherwise. If there is any change, it is this, we have upped the ante.  “We break small rules when we are young. Now that we are older, we break bigger rules.” The rampant flouting of laws, ranging from traffic offenses to copyright infringements, avoidance of legitimate taxes to widespread corruption, seem to reinforce rather than refute the point that “rules are meant to be broken,” and that we, especially Malaysians, take special pleasure in breaking rules.

If you buy into this principle that rules are meant to be broken, I’m going to take equal pleasure in bursting your bubble. Today, Our Lord does it on my behalf: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but complete them.” To paraphrase, “Contrary to what people say about me, I’ve come not to break the rules but to keep them to the very last clause.” What does He mean by this?

When Jesus refers to “the Law or the Prophets,” it’s a kind of shorthand for the entire Old Testament. But the more problematic word is “complete.” What does Jesus mean when He tells us that He has come to “complete” the Law? The Greek word “complete” or in some translations ‘fulfil’ (pleromai) means to fill-up or to expand, to cause to reach fullness or perfection. It’s an unusual word to use when speaking of the law because you would most likely see it in the context of fulfilment of prophecy. But here it refers to the Law. We can speak of fulfilling the law in two ways: by doing everything that is asked or by completing that which is missing. Jesus does the latter. He completes that which was missing and raises it to another level. Jesus, the New Law, brings the Old Law to its perfection, to its fullness and completion – to the end for which it was promulgated by God in the first place.

Jesus reveals the original divine purpose of the Law through a series of what scholars call "six antitheses." He speaks with all authority, as One not only fit to comment on the Law, but as the only divinely inspired interpreter, the only One capable of explaining the meaning intended by God. A simple principle of interpretation is that the legislator is the best interpreter of the Law. Here, Christ is none other than that Divine Legislator.

Using a solemn formula: “You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors …” Jesus examines key moral codes of the old Law - those regarding murder, adultery, divorce, oath swearing, retaliation and love of neighbour. In each area, He reveals the values and motives hidden in the Law, values that make the Law even more radically demanding upon the whole person. Again, He does not abolish the Law but brings it to its natural fulfilment. In this, He reveals that the new Law transcends the old Law. No longer is the Law of God’s people to be a simple prescription for external behaviour. It is now an interior law, to be written in the hearts of believers. The secret of keeping the Law is this inner dynamism of freedom.

On freedom, the great Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, writes, “A person is free when he belongs to himself; a slave, on the contrary, belongs to his master. In the same way, he acts freely, he who acts spontaneously, while he who receives his impulse from another does not act freely… Now it is precisely this that the Holy Spirit brings about, for he perfects our spirit interiorly, giving it a new dynamism, and thus, the person refrains from evil out of love, as if the divine law commanded it of him. He is free, therefore, not in the sense that the divine law no longer holds for him, but in the sense that his interior dynamism moves him to do what the divine law prescribes.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly articulates the relation of the Old Law to the New Law (§1968): “The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope and charity are formed, and with them, the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.”

Thus, the Lord fulfils the law by bringing out its fullest and complete meaning. He fulfils it by radicalising the law’s demands by going to its heart and centre, which is, that we love God above all, and our neighbours as ourselves. Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

So, it’s time to debunk the myth that Jesus broke rules because He was simply against the law. What He really opposed was legalistic minimalism. Minimalism, as the name suggests, is basically just doing the bare minimum required by the law, which means that in most cases we would not really have to give a care about others. Minimalism has nothing to do with love. In fact, it is proof that we have little love whenever we try to either find a loophole to circumvent the Law or pay lip service to it by doing the bare minimum. As opposed to minimalism of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus is clearly a maximalist. If the former were contented with keeping the Law, Jesus challenges us to go beyond the Law, to aim for the higher ideal of sacrificial love which demands so much more from us than the law. In a world, where the catchphrase is “why do more when you can do less?” Jesus counters with His version, “Why do less when you can do so much more?”

So there is absolutely no inconsistency between the Jesus of Love and the Jesus of the Law. For too long, we have been deceived into believing that there is an irreconcilable dichotomy between those who follow the law and those called to love. We were told that to follow the law is to be under a burden, to be compelled or to be constrained. To love, on the other hand, is to embrace the capacity to choose, to be creative and to be liberated. It is this way of thinking that has wrought catastrophic damage in the life of the Church. What happens when you take away the law or choose to ignore it? You would most likely find anarchy rather than love!

It’s good to remember the constant plea of Pope Francis to proclaim the gospel of salvation and not the gospel of small-minded rules. The Pope certainly did not wish to say that law and mercy were antithetical. What he wanted to stress is this - that we must never lose sight of the object of that law; that laws must not be ends in themselves. The end must always be Love, and to love is to desire the salvation of souls, which is the mission of Christ and His Church. Yes, we must avoid “legalism.” A smug sense of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency will cause a person to be lost eternally. But salvation can also be lost by flagrantly choosing to ignore God’s laws. We must stake our lives upon the grace of God, to desire always our sanctification and our salvation, to love Him above all else. But to profess that we love Him, we must be ever ready to obey His commands.

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