The Long Arm of the Law
By Jude Huntz
Key Scripture Columnist
If we only had the first reading to be our guide in life, the spiritual and moral life seems rather simple: follow the commandments of God, choose good and not evil, and all will be well in this life and the life to come. What is more, the Responsorial Psalm confirms the message of Sirach nearly to the letter.
However, Paul saw difficulties in this approach. As a former Pharisee, Paul had followed the law of God faithfully and yet he was far from the heart of God. Paul thought he knew what was good and what was bad – and yet he saw his friends and associates choose against Jesus. He himself had initially chosen against Jesus, persecuting the early Christian church. Apparently, choosing rightly isn’t as easy as it seems.
Paul realized that the difficulty lies not in God but in ourselves. We humans create all sorts of criteria that determine what is good and successful: good health, riches, a good reputation and standing in the community, and popularity. All of these things are external criteria that are all wrong. Paul reminds us that God’s wisdom is mysterious and hidden. In order to discern this wisdom we need to find it not in the external but in our hearts by listening to the Spirit who dwells within. Once we have heard the voice of God through the Spirit dwelling within we can have deeds that show forth the faith we profess in our deeds.
The Gospel text returns us to the ministry of Jesus where we encounter the Lord interpreting various parts of the law. This selection provides us with four particular cases that the rabbis endlessly debated. All of these examples deal with the person’s relationship with other people. The center of these rabbinic debates traditionally involved interpreting a person’s external behaviors in these particular situations. Jesus, however, gets to the root of each precept of the law: what lies within the human heart that leads to our decisions.
In the first instance, the law seems simple enough: you shall not kill. Most of us would not condemn ourselves in this commandment. Most of us haven’t shed blood, but we all have thought badly of our neighbor, spoke ill of them, or failed to reconcile ourselves with our neighbor when performing our religious rituals. The Spirit would convict us of violating the law in this regard, as these little things – if left unchecked – will lead to actual shedding of blood.
Similarly, the law against adultery seems straightforward, and most of us have not transgressed this law through physical intimacy with one who is not our spouse. Yet, our hearts and thoughts often betray us in this regard, and if we fail to fight against these smaller battles that take place within us we will fail in the more obvious matter of the actual external action.
The final two examples appear to involve external actions: we should not divorce, and we should not make oaths. Yet, the act of divorce presupposes a tendency of humans to make exceptions to this law so that we can do as we like. Jesus restores us to the original understanding of marriage that God gave in the beginning: what God has joined together no one can separate. In the same way, the very fact that we find it necessary to make oaths implies that humans have a tendency to lie. The story of the fall from paradise makes this fact plain enough. If the children of God were truly listening to the Spirit of God dwelling within them, then there would not be any thought of putting away our spouse to marry another or to lie.
We may, then never kill anyone, commit adultery, swear an oath, or divorce our spouses – and yet we could be far from living the law. Only God can see the human heart, and if we examine our conscience with care and in communion with the Holy Spirit we will see what God sees and discern rightly how we must live our lives.
Connection to the Spirit can only take place in a life of deep prayer, for only God can help us in this struggle within us and only there can wisdom be found to guide our behaviors that conform to the life of the Spirit. What is more, the example of Jesus provides us with the authentic interpretation of the law through his words and deeds that lead us to salvation. We therefore pray with the Church universal for this help: “Let us pray for the wisdom that is greater than human words. Father in heaven, the loving plan of your wisdom took flesh in Jesus Christ, and changed mankind’s history by his command of perfect love. May our fulfillment of his command reflect your wisdom and bring your salvation to the ends of the earth. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Jude Huntz is Director of the Human Rights Office for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.