Christ the King Catholic Church
Jesus used to get himself in trouble with the religious leaders of his day. They saw him as a threat to their religion and their nation. They accused him of teaching an 'easy' religion. He spoke more of love than the law. The religious leaders of Jesus' day spent their lives studying the law. From the Ten Commandments that God had given to Moses, they developed 613 precepts that a faithful Jew had to obey in order to keep the Ten Commandments! 613!
Jesus responds to the criticism of the Pharisees and Scribes today by saying, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill them. And the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets is love.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for making the law a heavy burden that they placed on people's shoulders without doing anything to help them carry out the law. The law that God gives us is not meant to be a burden, but rather a gift - a gift that helps us fulfill what is at the heart of the law and that is love of God and love of neighbor. It is in keeping the law that we come to our full stature. We become the people that God created us to be. Rather than a burden to carry, the law is a gift from God.
At the heart of the controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leaders was an understanding of the law. The Scribes and Pharisees concentrated on the 'letter' of the law while Jesus concentrated on the 'spirit' of the law. When we look at the 'letter' of the law we ask, "What must I do to fulfill the law?" When we look at the 'spirit' of the law we ask, "What can I do to fulfill the law?" Two very different ways of looking at the law. "What do I have to do to love God and love my neighbor or what can I do to love God and my neighbor?"
The religious leaders of Jesus' day looked at the letter of the law and set limits on what one had to do to fulfill the law. Jesus looked at the spirit of the law and asked not what do I have to do, but what can I do to fulfill the law? Far from teaching an easy religion, Jesus taught a religion that knew no limits on the love of God and the love of neighbor that is asked of us as God's people.
Jesus teaches us that a person may fulfill the letter of the law, but not fulfill the spirit of the law.
Think of a parent. No parent that I know, certainly not our parents here at Christ the King, would ever ask, "What must I do to love my children today?" "How much do I have to feed them today?" "How many miles do I have to transport them?" "How much time do I have to spend with them today?" Parents look not at the letter of the law, but at the spirit of the law. They don't ask the question, ''What do I have to do for my children?" They wake up each day and ask, "What can I do for my children today." This is the kind of religion that Jesus teaches us. This is the religion to which Jesus challenges us to live our lives. True religion doesn't place limits on love but removes those limits.
We can use example from civil law to help us understand the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. If a policeman stops me for speeding, I want to know exactly what I have to do. When he asks to see my driver's license, I will show him my driver's license - and nothing more. In my billfold there are pictures of my family, pictures of my nieces and nephews. I would never think of showing those to the police officer who stops me for speeding. If the officer asks to see my license and my registration that is what I will do - and nothing more. On the other hand, if I am at a restaurant with friends and open my billfold to pay the bill and a friend sees a picture of my niece and asks, "Who is that?" I am going to show that picture and all the other pictures I carry and maybe even share a favorite poem I keep folded up in my wallet.
And so, Jesus leads us through the commandments saying, "You have heard it said, but I say to you." You have heard it said, "You shall not kill." The letter of the law says that you cannot take the life of another person. The Pharisees considered themselves righteous because they had not killed others. But Jesus calls us to a higher standard. The spirit of the fifth commandment calls us to respect human life. The cruel word can be as sharp a weapon as the knife. The tongue that gossips around the water cooler can be as harmful to a person's life as the fist that strikes a brother or a sister.
"You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery." The letter of the law would forbid taking another person's spouse as his or her own. The spirit of the law asks more of us. It calls us to respect the sacredness of the human personality, to never look at another as an object to be used and to never violate the sacredness of the family and the home. The action of adultery violates the letter of the law.
Untamed lustful thoughts violate the spirit of the law.
The eighth commandment calls us to be truthful. The Jews had developed a very complicated system of oaths. Some oaths were more binding than others. If you swore by 'this' there was a 50 percent possibility that what you were saying was true and, if you swore by 'that', there was a 90 percent probability that you were speaking the truth.
Jesus saw behind all of this and said let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no". Anything else comes from the evil one.
The holiness to which Jesus calls us far surpasses the outward holiness on which the Pharisees based their lives. Jesus calls us to a holiness that far surpasses that. He calls us to a holiness that touches and changes our hearts.
In 1992 when President Clinton was running for president against George Bush, who was the incumbent president, his advisors set up what they called the 'War Room' in which they worked out strategies. James Carville coined the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." A large poster was set up in the war room to remind everyone to keep a laser-like focus on the economy.
If Jesus set up a 'War Room' that poster would say, "It's the heart, stupid." True religion is a matter of the heart. The law that Jesus came not to abolish, but to perfect, is all about love - love of God and love of neighbor. Not a stingy, measured love, but a generous, overflowing love. "You have heard it said, but I say to you... " Jesus gives us a new way of looking at the law.
We are approaching Lent and hopefully we are already thinking of how we might use this season of grace to grow in our spiritual lives. The Gospel today suggests a way. Do we know the Ten Commandments? If Jesus didn't come to abolish them, it is important that we know them and that we meditate on them day and night.
What a fruitful reflection this might be for all of us this Lent!
We may look at the commandments with a little Pharisee in us. We may look for escape clauses in each of the commandments. Just tell me what I have to do to keep this commandment and I will do that and nothing more. Jesus would change the question. It's not what do I have to do, but rather what can I do?" to keep this commandment? How we phrase the question makes all the difference. "What do I have to do to do to keep holy the Lord's Day? Or, "What can I do to keep holy the Lord's day?"
Burden or gift? How we look at the commandments makes all the difference.