6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Cor 2:6-10
I guess I must have been about 13 years old. I can’t remember exactly what I had done wrong, but my dad had caught me red-handed and I was sitting on my bed waiting for him to come in for “the talk”. You see, whenever I did something wrong, first my dad would send me to my room for a while to “think about it”. Then, after he figured I’d been softened up enough, he’d come in and we’d talk about it. Usually he talked and I listened. Those were some of the most profound learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
Anyway, on this occasion I must have done something particularly heinous, because he proceeded to explain to me that what I had done had actually broken each and every one of the ten commandments. Each and every one. And he walked me through all ten in order and explained how I had broken it.
At first I was incredulous. I thought he was exaggerating. Surely I hadn’t killed anyone or anything like that. I don’t think I even knew what “covet” meant at the time, but I’d broken those two also. But, like Jesus in today’s gospel, he showed me how there were the seeds of my transgression that day in each of those ancient commandments. Dad was trying to tell me that I need to see further than do’s and don’ts.
He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad…well, maybe a little. He wanted me to be able to make decisions based upon more than just a set of rules. He wanted me to expand my awareness of right and wrong. And obviously, since I still remember it, that event has helped direct my conscience throughout my life.
Why was Jesus addressing this with his disciples that day? He had just finished preaching the Beatitudes to them. He had just told them that there was a new, proactive way of following the law. The ten commandments were mostly prohibitions. Necessary for any society to order itself, but full of “thall shalt nots”. The Beatitudes were a new way of looking at the world and the relationships among people. They were more about attitudes than actions. Was Jesus issuing a caveat here? Was he reminding them that this new way of acting and thinking was just a natural extension of those ancient prohibitions? Was he also trying to expand their awareness of right and wrong?
Or when Jesus said things like the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, did some of his disciples think he was throwing out the old for the new, and so they weren’t bound by the law anymore? Were they trying to find loopholes in the law, those exceptions that gave them a free pass in this or that situation? They had done it with the law on divorce. They did it with how they treated foreigners and strangers. They were always looking for exceptions, for reasons the law didn’t apply to them. I think we all look for loopholes when we don’t want to keep the law because it is difficult or inconvenient to do so. We do it with the laws of society and the laws of God.
I don’t think Jesus was using hyperbole here. Jesus was talking about the sin of complacency. He was warning about getting bogged down in the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit of the law.
I’ve never killed anybody, so I’m off the hook with that one. But how many times have I murdered someone’s reputation through my gossiping?
I honor my father and mother, so that one doesn’t apply to me, either. Most of us honor our parents. But we can also honor the stranger amongst us.
Most of us are honest most of the time. But we can all work to be more transparent with those we love. How often does our yes mean yes and our no mean no?
Jesus wants us to see beyond the do’s and don’ts, to look beyond the law to the person who fulfilled it. But to Jesus it’s not just the spirit of the law that is important, but the letter as well. “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
You’ve probably heard of the “broken window” theory of law enforcement. I believe it started in New York City in the ‘80’s. The thought was that if police tried to stop the simple petty crimes such as graffiti and vandalism, more serious crime would also be reduced. Clean up Times Square and other crimes would diminish. They even got rid of those guys who came up and tried to wash your windows while you were stopped at a light. Instead of spending all our resources on the big stuff… sort of a top down strategy…spend time also on the little stuff, because usually those people who committed the big crimes started out by committing little crimes. And it worked. Major crime was reduced drastically, and New York City is considered one of the safest major cities in the world today.
The letter springs out of the spirit. The letter is how we act out the spirit. It must be both. If it is just the spirit of the law then we will always rationalize a way around it. If it is just the letter then we will become rigid and unmerciful.
Originally the Jewish people saw the law as a very positive thing. It was written by the very hand of their God and given to them as a sign of the special covenant God had made with them. If they kept God’s law God would protect them and make them prosper. If they broke the law usually bad things happened to them. But over time the law itself became the most important thing and not the covenant it represented. It is sometimes easier to focus on the action and not on the meaning behind it. It can become blind obedience, not life changing behavior.
Christianity is not a completely new faith that sprung up on Pentecost two thousand years ago. Practically all of the teachings of Jesus can be traced to their roots in the Judaism he practiced. And if we truly believe that Jesus is the Word Made Flesh that has been with the Father since the beginning, then Christianity has been around since then also. St. Paul says today, “We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory”.
If something is true it’s true. God does not change, only our understanding of God changes. Only the way we follow God changes. God set up the law so that we could live as we were created to live. The law is to guide us to God. It isn’t supposed to be about punishment, it is supposed to lead to our salvation. “If you choose to keep the commandments, they will save you.” The law is not intended to imprison us but to set us free.
We do not follow the law because if we don’t bad things will happen to us. We follow the law because it leads to so much more.