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Sunday Readings for Feb. 13, 2011 (6A)
By Fr. Orlando Sapuay. M.S.
In today's Gospel Matthew emphasizes the relation between Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus. Matthew reassures his readers that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to bring them to completion. So, in a sense, the Law still has force. "Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."
On the other hand, there is much in Jesus' teaching that is completely new. He did not abolish the Law but he introduced a completely new way of thinking. He did not abolish or change the Law but went far beyond its requirements. For Jesus, just to keep the Law externally is not enough. To be a disciple of Christ, the foundation of our lives must go deeper -- to a mutual love. To keep the Law without love is like having a body without a soul. Literally to keep the Law of God and of the Church is not the same as being a good disciple of Jesus.
“If your virtue goes no deeper (other translations say “better”) than the Scribes and Pharisees (who were perfect observers of the letter of the Law), then you will never enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says today. “Better” is rather neutral; “deeper” says more. It is clearly the sense of the passage. The law does not go down to the root of things: to the mind and heart. It is in the mind and heart that all our actions are conceived and born. Murder is the ultimate flowering of an anger that grew unchecked in the mind and heart. If we never look into those sometimes dark places, we could find later that we have been breeding monsters there.
The Scribes and the Pharisees kept the Law and the Commandments very carefully. But Jesus would say that, though they observed the external requirements of the Law, they did not have the spirit which is the foundation of the Law: to love God and to love the neighbor as oneself. Clearly, this teaching would have made much more impact on a Jewish audience but, even in our Christian lives, it is possible for people to have a very mechanical notion of what is good behavior. This is revealed often in the way we "go to confession".
It is said that once a lawyer said in defense of a patently unjust decision, “the courts are not courts of justice, they are courts of Law. One wonders then what they are for. What justifies the existence of a law, if not that it should be in the service of justice? But justice is a difficult search, and life has to go on quickly, so we settle for law.
When is a law being fulfilled? when it is observed to the letter? Hardly. The Scribes and Pharisees adhered to the letter of the law, yet Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God and clinging to human traditions” (Mk 7:8). A law is being fulfilled surely, when the purpose for which it was made is being fulfilled. A law is a means to an end; but if the end is being subverted by the law, then it is no longer a law.
This is the revolutionary teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. Law, he said, is an act of reason (ordering a means to an end), not an act of will. Law is not the grip of someone’s power over you, but guidance for your mind. It subverts neither your mind nor your will, but guides you along a path. It does not take away our freedom, but supports, enlightens and defends it. This is how there can be such a thing as the Law of God.
My former teacher in Canon Law used to say, there are two kinds of Canon Lawyer: the one who studies the law in order to tie you down with it, and the one who studies it in order to set you free. As He loved to point out, in Latin the Code of Canon Law is called “Codex iuris canonuici”; and the word “ius” (genitive “iuris”) does not mean “law” but “rights.” Canonical rights. It is about defending your rights.
“We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die” (John 19:7). It was this same law that Jesus said He came to fulfill. What could he have meant, then, by “fulfilling the law”? Not its observance to the letter: He definitely broke the law on many occasions – certainly as it was understood in His time. By fulfilling the law, he meant fulfilling the purpose for which it was made: that is justice (or righteousness) as the scriptures call it: that includes a just relationship with God. He may have been thinking of the text in Isaiah (55:11): “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which it was sent.”
But why then does he say that “not the smallest letter or stroke of the law will change until it is fulfilled”? It is not the law that is wrong, but its separation from justice. Clever people can even make the law an enemy of justice. This happens daily in the wide world, and sadly, also in the church.