So many rules!

Readings for October 29, 2017

Exodus 22:20-26
Psalm 18
Thessalonians 1:5-10
Matthew 22:34-40

God created the earth from a “formless void” (Genesis 1:2) making order from chaos. It should not be surprising, then, that the God’s Chosen People were the first to use the term “law,” referring to the “Law of Moses” put forth in the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus often called out the Pharisees for their burdensome attention to laws and oral tradition, imposing, by some counts, 613 laws onto the people. The Catholic Church, in its Code of Canon Law, has 1752 “laws” (Canons) and an additional 2865 paragraphs within its official Catechism articulating Church doctrine on faith and morals. That’s a lot of rules! Nevertheless, rules are designed to be helpful in organizing society and avoiding chaos. Aristotle, in fact, wrote in his essay Politics, “Law is order.” While interpretive by nature, there is general acceptance of both natural and human-derived laws to protect people and things, stipulating principles for order. Still, laws can also sometimes be confusing, unequally applied, imposing and conflicting.

Personally, I am one who appreciates (and needs!) order. I am not altogether orderly on my own and the rules or laws around life help keep me in a steady state. However, I also struggle with details and can be overwhelmed with voluminous rules governing the smaller details in my life. Jesus’ simpler breakdown of the rules to its base of love is extraordinarily valuable to me. All three synoptic Gospels depict Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and scribes though it is not a new command – scripture passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus contain these same commands, coming directly from God. It is important to understand that the simplicity of pointing specifically to the Greatest Commandment, to love God, and adding another, to love neighbor, neither negates nor replaces Mosaic Law. Rather, the command to love God wholly and to love our neighbor is firmly rooted in law and scripture, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” The two commandments project a complete picture of the intent of the law, providing a road map for how the rules apply to life. Jesus himself says that he has not come to abolish, but to fulfill the law. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law” (Matthew 5:17). The emphasis in Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his day lies within the hypocrisy of how they lived more so than the number of laws they applied to the people. Despite the criticism, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:3). Conversely, Jesus, our savior, as Paul writes, “Delivers us from the coming wrath” through the practice of God’s love and mercy.

An emphasis on the rules devoid of their intent sometimes lends itself to a legalistic, seemingly punitive application of the law. On the other hand, it is almost too easy to find fault with the number of rules and lament the foreboding nature rules imply. Sadly, some people I know have left the Church in dissent of the rules. Nonetheless, as God is and can only be love, the intent of the law is love, not something unachievable or burdensome. I find it reassuring that among all the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” God’s plan for order to aid us humans is and has always been about His love for us. Knowing the law’s intent helps reduce the confusion and mitigate conflicts in interpretation. Understanding that love is the sole intent shines a less imposing light and, instead, offers guiding principles for living my life as God has intended. This week’s passage from Exodus explains some of those guiding principles. God warns against doing harm to the most vulnerable in society, the aliens, widows and orphans. And the command to return my neighbor’s cloak before midnight is an appeal to see things from my neighbor’s perspective and measure my own actions against the love I am supposed to have for others. Rather than an imposition from a dictatorial ruler, God’s law specifies how we are to live and interact with one another according to and in response to His love for us.

Both Psalm 18 and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians proclaim a “living and true God.” In so much as God is alive, heaven and earth have not passed away, leaving the law firmly in place still today. However, even in deference to law, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). What’s more, I can love because He first loved me (1 John 14:19). As such, He who lives created me in and with an unlimited love, has furnished me with an infinite capacity to love. When I live His love, I follow His commands, completing the cycle. The perpetual cycle of love provides a full measure of the law and my own fulfillment of the Greatest Commandment.

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