Sirach 15: 15-20; I Cor 2: 6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37
Despite being a rather lengthy gospel, containing probably enough for ten homilies, there are some common themes that hold the passage together, in particular, the way it begins where Jesus reminds the disciples on this continuation of the beatitudes, that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, in the context of somehow surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees.
So what’s going on? First of all, the law has it’s place. If anyone knows this it’s us. As Americans we have a tendency to obsess about the law more than anything else. We know it brings order to chaos but it also is there to protect us from harm or if we are harmed. The problem with law, despite all it provides, is what Sirach tells us in the very first line of the first reading today where he states, if you choose you can keep my commandments. It’s not a bad thing. However, I can will myself into following the law. I don’t kill. I don’t steal. Yeah, maybe break traffic laws from time to time, but for the most part, I can will myself into following the law. At the same time, it’s not going to bring fulfillment and quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot of joy in my life if I stop at simply willing myself to following the law. It’s tiring. It’s burdensome. It takes a great deal of energy. Honestly, that was the issue with the scribes and pharisees. They were obsessed with the law and it all stopped there.
The law says…but I say, Jesus says. Sure, there’s a place for all of that in our lives but we also know, in all of his statements that follow, he specifically deals with relationships. Relationships are hard and don’t always fall into the bounds of the laws we try to follow. There are elements that rise above, such as forgiveness and love. That’s the rub when it comes to this obsession with the law for the scribes and pharisees and which Jesus warns his disciples, when you become so fixated on it, there’s no room for love or forgiveness. That will be his message that follows next week. The law may be great for keeping order and creating some kind of boundary, protecting us from harm or if we were harmed, but it doesn’t leave much room for the greater law of love and forgiveness.
But we can’t stop there. It’s easy to say that I don’t obsess over the law. I am a person of love and forgiveness. Is it really that easy? There’s another law that has a tendency to creep into our lives and that’s the law we create for ourselves and try to hold others accountable. That’s also the reality of the scribes and pharisees, again, not leaving much space for love and forgiveness, and for that matter, error as human beings. That’s a necessary reality as humans because we’re not always going to choose in a way that brings about life. It starts to creep in when I say things should be this way, or we do things this way, and we try to hold ourselves and others to these self-proclaimed laws that aren’t even realistic and quite frankly, leave no room for God and the Spirit at work.
Paul speaks of that Spirit working in our lives in today’s second reading. The Spirit often meets us in this rub in our lives between the tension and this deeper desire for love and forgiveness. Somehow, as he tells us, the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God, trying to lead us to that deeper place in our lives. We are so often so unaware that we even do this to ourselves or others because it becomes our unconscious way and habitual that we don’t see it and can’t even begin to imagine ourselves not having it, because, like the law, it feels like we’re losing control and the law brings order and protects. In reality, it can protect and bring order all it wants, but once, we the people, are involved, there must to room for hurt, pain, suffering, and ultimately, love and forgiveness. No judge or arbitrator can ever bring that about in our lives and our relationships, only by allowing ourselves to enter into that rub, that tension in our lives, where we can be moved forward by the Spirit.
The gospel today challenges us to seek that awareness in our lives when we are obsessing about the law. As I said, it may not be civil law, it may not be Church law, although it can be, but it can also be that law we create for ourselves that acts as a way to control and protect us from being hurt, but it can also cut us off not only from others but from God. The more we are aware of our actions in that way, whether we want to admit it or not, where we make choices that lead to death and joylessness, the more we open ourselves to the grace leading us to let it go and create space for love and forgiveness. Why would we want anything less? Control can never bring it. Walls cannot bring it. Protection cannot bring it. Only the grace of God and the relationships that feed us in that way will bring us to a place where we can acknowledge the need for law but it no longer needs to define me.