Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Homily 14th Sun O.T., Year A–The Law of Love

My Canon Law professor at the seminary, Msgr. Fulton, had a way of teaching Church law that made us actually enjoy learning it; he made it a joy to know the law and to help others to know it too. He had a great sense of humor in how he applied the law to particular situations. By having a sense of humor with the law, the point he made to us, without explicitly saying it, is that the law of the Church, which is a reflection of the law of the Lord, should be taught and learned and followed with joy and from the heart. The law is not intended to be something that embitters us. The law is not meant to be followed with white-knuckled anxiety or with demands that are impossible to meet. Laws, when they are just, do not bind up… they set free.

Now, it is certainly true that we all bristle under the law every now and then – whether it’s that speeding ticket for going 5 miles over the speed limit or that sudden realization that it’s a Friday in Lent right before you bite into a steak. This is nothing though compared to what the Israelites felt in Biblical times under the weight of law put onto them by the scribes and Pharisees. The 10 commandments, as awesome as they are, were ultimately national laws for public observance. “Thou shall not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain” meant that henceforth it was illegal for them to do so. “That shall not kill” made murder illegal. Breaking one of the 10 commandments brought grave punishments. And on top of these were the hundreds of other laws, 613 to be exact, that governed almost every aspect of their way of life.

But, these laws were good because they helped to separate the Israelites from the pagan influences of the peoples that surrounded them. They helped to set the standard for exhibiting a right relationship with God. These laws helped set their nation apart, to define and protect them, as God’s chosen people. The point of the old law was that God was preparing them for a New Covenant in Jesus Christ that would inscribe the law of God on their hearts. By training them to follow external observances he was preparing them to follow the internal law of love.

This was the point of the law that the scribes and Pharisees missed. Rather than accept Jesus who fulfilled, completed, perfected, and transformed the law into the means of their salvation, they based their salvation in strictly observing “the smallest letter” and “the smallest part of a letter” of the law, every “jot and tittle” as they used to say (Mt 5:18). Thank God we don’t have the same burdens placed on us. Thank God Jesus really did fulfill and transform the law from something heavy and external to something light and heartfelt. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus said, “my burden light” (Mt 11:30). No more do we have laws that are impossible to follow. Under the Kingship of our Lord, we are given a new moral law that brings right along with it the aid to carrying it out.

So for example, none of us needs the law “You shall not kill” because we have been given the grace and blessing of a good upbringing, well-ordered hearts and minds, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. We can say we are free of the demands of that law. But Jesus wants us to go deeper. What about the anger in our hearts that kills our relationship with our parents, or our siblings, or our coworkers? What about the lack of patience with ourselves that we cannot let go of? What about the revenge that we secretly desire every time we are offended? These thoughts and desires that spring from the heart cause us to suffer a hundred tiny deaths throughout our lives if we do not let the law of the Lord, the law of love, set us free from them.

It is this kind of deeper meaning that Jesus wants us to see in each of the 10 commandments as we strive to follow them. They are still true for us, as true as they were for the Israelites. But now God is asking us to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, not just with our external observances. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever” (Jn 14:15).

And St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” We are given grace and the Holy Spirit that make following God’s laws, and by extension the Church’s laws, peaceful rather than bitter, and motivated by love rather than external conformity. Because of our fallen nature, laws will always be a burden, but just laws are a burden of love. St. Augustine said, “Any other burden oppresses and crushes you, but Christ’s actually takes weight off you. Any other burden weighs down, but Christ’s gives you wings. If you take a bird’s wings away, you might seem to be taking weight off, but the more weight you take off, the more you tie it down to the earth. There it is on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a weight; give it back the weight of its wings and you will see how it flies” (St. Augustine, Sermones, 126, 12).

Christ, our King, is not one who wields the law like a tyrant. He is a “just” and “meek” savior, as the prophet Zechariah foretold. Jesus himself said that those who come to him, will find not oppression but “rest” for he is “meek and humble of heart.” When we see that such a master as this is behind the law then we have no trouble following it. And when we follow the law with simplicity and humility, like “little ones” do, he will show us the Father and we will grow more and more in intimacy with Him. But, if we follow the law like some of “the wise and the learned” who try to over-rationalize it, make it too hard, or find loopholes through it, then intimacy with the Father will be hidden from us. This is precisely why our Lord asks for obedient disciples, because he is not the kind of Master that would oppress us, and because he wants to take us to His Father. The more we show love through obedience, the more we will grow in love. The more we grow in love, the more we are compelled by it rather than the law. The more we are compelled by love the more our spiritual lives will soar, like St. Augustine’s bird, to the heights of heaven rather than be tied down to the bitter legalism of this world.

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