The Love Behind the Law

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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Have you ever wondered why we don’t observe many of the laws given in the Old Testament, such as those prohibiting eating shellfish, or wearing clothing of mixed fibers?  But we continue to observe other Old Testament laws when it comes to things like sexual morality, murder, theft, or bearing false witness. Does this make Christians guilty of hypocrisy?

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). What does it mean to say Jesus “fulfills” the law?

I think a clue can be found in this Sunday’s second reading, from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Elsewhere St. Paul is very adamant about the fact that the law of Moses was not sufficient to save us. He makes this point very strongly in his letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, for example. If simply obeying the many laws laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were enough to justify us before God, Paul argues, then there would be no need for Christ. There would have been no need for the Incarnation, or Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. Paul points to himself as a counter-example. He was the most zealous of all the Pharisees, observing the Mosaic Law as much as is humanly possible. But it wasn’t enough. What the law does, according to Paul, is to demonstrate just how sinful man is. We all come up short by the measure of God’s law.

But here in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says something curious — not about the old law, but about the new gospel of Christ. He says, “We speak a wisdom to those who are mature” (1 Cor 2:6).

As children growing up, most of us had household rules we were expected to follow. Perhaps you had a limit on how much television you could watch, or how long you could spend playing video games. Perhaps you had a curfew. Maybe there were rules about sharing with your siblings or how you were to address your parents in a respectful manner. Often parents with well behaved children will only have a few general household rules to follow, while parents of more unruly children will need to put in place many more restrictive rules. But in either case there comes a time when the child grows up and leaves the home. The old rules of the parents no longer apply. It is hoped that you will have learned to behave well not because of the rules, but out of a desire to be a good person.

As mature adults, we don’t need Mom and Dad’s rules any longer, because we understand the principles that the rules were designed to teach us. Mom and Dad may have had a rule against playing with the stove. All we knew as small children was that we would get in trouble if we played with the stove, but as older children we learned that the stove could be hot and if we touched it we could hurt ourselves. Mom and Dad didn’t make the rule in order to take away the joy of playing with the stove. They made the rule to protect us from being hurt. They made the rule because they loved us.

The commands of God are there for the same reasons — to teach us God’s wisdom, to form us in virtue, and to protect us from harm. They are there because God loves us. In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus shows us the love behind the law.

Old Testament restrictions that were purely disciplinary — things like dietary regulations and wearing clothing of mixed fibers — are no longer in effect, just like your curfew is no longer in effect when you grow up and leave home. Those disciplines have served their purpose. But other aspects of the law, those dealing with human nature and how we are to love God and our neighbor, remain. In fact, Jesus sets an even higher standard.

The law says not to murder. Jesus says we are not to hate.

The law says not to commit adultery. Jesus says we are not to lust.

The law says not to break a solemn oath. Jesus says to speak the truth at all times.

The higher standard set by Jesus is the standard of love. It’s relatively easy to follow the letter of the Ten Commandments. But just because you avoid murdering, lying, cheating on your spouse, disrespecting your parents, and worshiping false Gods, this does not make you a paragon of virtue. It means you are not a complete jerk. Congratulations.

Jesus wants you to do more than obey the letter of the law. He is calling you to something higher than mere obedience. He is calling you to virtue. He is calling you to live the love behind the law. He is calling you to perfection.

This is hard, and we can’t do it on our own. But here is the good news — we don’t have to. Jesus came to fulfill the law, and it is through and with Jesus that we can live according to the law of love We have the one who made the law as our Teacher. We have His Holy Spirit as our Advocate. We have the grace of God as the wind in our sails, driving us forward in the moral life.

But we also have a job to do.  Jesus is not letting us off the hook by fulfilling the old law. He’s holding us to a higher standard. As our first reading says, we have a choice to make (Sir 15:17). Before us is life and death, good and evil. Let us choose virtue. Let us choose the path of Christ. Let us choose the love behind the law.