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  • Writer's pictureFather Puddleglum

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A

One of the things to which I have grown accustomed over the last several years is wearing clerics (priest clothes) out in public. Walking through the grocery store or down the street I will often see out of the corner of my eye someone staring or doing a double take. One of the things that I do find amusing is that I am sometimes mistaken as a waiter at restaurants. I have discovered that one of the best aspects about my wardrobe is that my black clothes and white collar usually make it easier to talk to people about Jesus. Let’s be honest. If people see a priest they often brace themselves and feel obliged to have a conversation or at least say something about religion. I have an automatic in, a natural segway to bring Jesus into the conversation. More often than not it is actually others who bring up religion. Possibly the most common phrase I hear from people is that they are spiritual but not religious. Chances are you have also heard this phrase before.

Those who use this phrase believe in God and the spiritual life but they see no need for the organized institution with all its bothersome and burdening rules and regulations. They believe that religion and all its laws hamper their relationship with God. They will sometimes even go so far as to claim that Jesus Himself challenged the religion of His time by resisting laws and structures of authority. Jesus is sometimes portrayed as a kind of anarchist of religion who freed the Jewish people from their restrictive laws thereby allowing them to eat bacon. However, Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage that He has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it.

Jesus is not an enemy of religion and its laws. He is not an anarchist who sees no need for structure and authority. After He claims that He has come to fulfill the law He goes on to make amendments to some of the laws of Judaism. He prohibits not only violence but anger, not only adultery but looking at others with lust, not only lying under oath but any duplicity in one’s words. Jesus ups the ante so to speak. He is not only concerned with external actions but the interior dispositions of the heart. Therefore, His laws are stricter than the old laws.

Now you might be thinking to yourself “but I can have bacon and shellfish whereas Jewish people cannot. Didn’t Jesus abolish these laws?” Good question. To give an adequate answer we need to understand that there were several different kinds of laws given to the people of Israel. There were civil laws that gave civil order to the nation of Israel. It would be akin to our own civil law system. Then there were ritual laws that dealt with offering sacrifice such as abstaining from pork or washing before a sacrificial meal. Modern examples would be our own rules and laws for celebrating Mass and other liturgies. Then there were moral laws which dealt with instructing people in what is right and wrong, good and evil.

The civil laws of Ancient Israel no longer apply to us because we do not belong to the worldly nation of Israel. The ritual laws are no longer needed because there are no animal sacrifices offered in the temple. The sacrifices offered in the temple again and again are no longer needed because Jesus offered the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. We have access to this sacrifice at every Mass which is a re-presentation of Calvary. In this way Jesus has fulfilled the old ritual law. He has brought it to completion on the cross. The moral law has been augmented, strengthened, and brought to completion.

While this historical information is important it still begs the question: why are laws so important? Do we really need laws and regulations to be in relationship with God and worship Him? Ultimately, the answer is yes.

Our culture regards structures of authority and their imposition of law with suspicion. And, quite frankly, can you blame society? We have observed failure after failure in leadership in our governments and even our Church. People are prone to be suspicious of authority. However, Scripture shows us that the laws of God are something to be cherished. “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord” we hear in the Psalm for today. If we choose to keep the commandments of the Lord we will live and flourish. The laws of God given to us through the Church aren’t there to obstruct our path to freedom and happiness – even those laws that are difficult and unpopular. They aren’t there to keep us from growing closer to God. They are the very means by which we grow in relationship with God and obtain our happiness.

If we are spiritual but not religious, if we seek to be in a relationship with God apart from laws and structures of authority, then we end up making our own religion that is centered on ourselves. If we pick and choose which teachings we will accept or reject then we displace God with ourselves thereby making the self the measure of right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and worthless. In the words of one Scripture scholar, “The cosmos without the divine Law would be reduced to something man could manipulate at will, having first set himself up as a kind of petty god, and our century has abundantly shown us what happens when man wants to exploit the cosmos as if it were his personal toy” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word volume I by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, 215). Truth is not something we conform to our own whims and desires. It is something to which we conform our lives.

Religion and its laws are not antithetical to our relationship with God. Think of any marriage. There are rules and “laws” of the marriage that both the husband and wife must follow. They must each be faithful. They should consult each other on big decisions. Without such laws the relationship would quickly fall apart.

God desires to be in a personal relationship with everyone. But this relationship must be on His terms and not our own. Do we love and cherish the laws of God mediated to us through His Church? Obedience to such laws can be difficult and there are many who struggle. But it is by meekness and submission to the laws of God that we will progress towards our purpose: blessedness and fulfillment.

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