6th Sunday of Ordinary Time: How Literal Is the Law?

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Matthew 5:17-37

How Literal Is the Law?

Human beings are a literal people. We like things black and white. Cross that line, the obvious one right there, and you are out. But as any parent, or anyone who has ever been parented, knows, the world doesn’t operate like that. The rules that work for one child don’t work for another. Every parent has heard (and every one of us children have cried), “That’s not fair!”

Biblical people were no different. They had applied the Mosaic law so literally, that should anyone be able to obey it perfectly, they would have to have 613 laws on their mental rolodex. The good part of over 600 laws is that behavior standards are spelled out very clearly. The bad part is, well, 613 laws. The laws were supposed to help God’s people, to point their way to Him. But it wasn’t really working out that way.

God watched His people struggle under the pressure, watched them lose sight of Him in their focus on the minutiae. He knew it was time to fulfill the law, to bring it to completion, to send help. And so Jesus was born.

Jesus made His purpose very clear: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law…but to fulfill” (v.17). Jesus’s way isn’t easier—it’s the same way— but His yoke is (Matt. 11:30).  That’s because Jesus explains the law more fully, shows us the heart behind the law. Once we understand the reasoning behind the law, we are then more likely to want to follow it. Once we understand that ultimately what Jesus wants is for us to love God and our neighbor, it becomes easier to discern what we should do in any given situation. Not easy. But easier.

I found this basic principle to be true recently while working with a large number of high schoolers. They had to compile information from a slew of individual forms, and all of the information had to be on each form. The kids compiling often pulled up forms missing data. I had to send them back for the information. Initially I got a lot of rolled eyes. But then I explained why each piece of data was needed—that I wasn’t trying to make extra work, that each piece of information was needed. All the rolled eyes weren’t eliminated, but it amazed me how many were. Kids even went to get the missing information without pressure from me.

On a much larger, and more important, scale, this is what Jesus came to do—explain the reasoning behind the law. “Do not kill,” is much more applicable to us when Jesus explains that being angry with someone kills not only our relationship with that person but also damages our relationship with God. Just because we’ve never actually murdered someone doesn’t mean we haven’t committed that sin. Jesus isn’t looking to “catch” us sinning, though. He wants to boil the law down so we understand that what He wants for us, what will bring us the most joy and fulfillment in life, is to love our neighbors, and ourselves, just as we all are. When we do that, when we offer genuine acceptance, ironically, that’s when we actually give people the freedom to change. Jesus does it for us, and through Him, we have the opportunity to do it for others.

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