THE HEART AND SPIRIT OF THE LAW: HOMILY FOR THE 22ND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR (B).
-Rev. Fr. Boniface Nkem Anusiem PhD.
Why are there laws (rules) and regulations in every sphere of life? There is indeed no aspect of our human life that is not governed by one law or the other. Most scientists talk about different laws that govern nature; for instance Isaac Newton’s law of gravity which simply states that everything that goes up must come down; it is practically the case. Specialist in different parts of human body give rules that govern for instance the eye, ear, skin, teeth, brain, and so on. Obeying such rules help in the better functioning of the organ in question. In social sciences there are so many laws as there are disciplines like Psychology, Ethics, Anthropology, Geography etc. There are indeed so many laws, rules and regulations that govern the economic, social, cultural, political and religious lives of people globally.
The question still remains: ” why are there laws (rules) and regulations?” Parents have dos and don’ts for their children for instance: “say your prayers before eating!” “Do not accept things from strangers”. Teachers would tell the students: “Read your books!” Do not make noise in the class!”Employers would tell employees: “Be punctual!” Be serious with your official duty!” Road Safety workers would tell us: “Use your seatbelt while driving!” “Do not use mobile phones while driving!” From our homes to our places of work, from the school to the church, from the social ceremony to the cemetery we encounter a lot of law (rules) and regulations. In fact it is said (may be hearsay) that at the mortuary before the morticians enter the morgue there is a rule that orders them to knock first. Why are there laws (rules) and regulations rather than none? The answer that comes to my mind is that laws, rules and regulations are meant to bring about order and discipline which help in the progress of the society. There may be other reasons for them.
The first five books of the bible make up what we know as the Pentateuch. The word is a Greek adaptation of the Hebrew expression “ḥamishshah ḥumshe ha-Torah” (five-fifths of the Law). The books which include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy make up the law. God did not give the laws, regulations and directives found in these books for the sake of giving. There was (and is) a divine purpose and reason behind the law. If we listen attentively to Moses in the reading today we get the insight to this. Moses told the people: “Now Israel, take notice of the laws and customs that I teach you today, and observe them, THAT YOU MAY HAVE LIFE AND ENTER AND TAKE POSSESSION OF THE LAND THAT THE LORD THE GOD OF YOUR FATHERS IS GIVING TO YOU”.
If we examine this passage very well we will see that God’s intention is that we have a guide that will lead us to where we can have life and eternal possession. So behind the law is God’s love and care for us. Behind the dos and don’ts we locate God’s reward of eternal life and superabundant grace. Behind the letters of the Law is the heart and spirit of the law which is God’s love. From the point of view of Moses, it will be difficult to have life and take possession of what God intends for us if we do not pay attention to the laws He had given us. In Deuteronomy (28:1-68) we see a clear elucidation of blessings for obedience to the divine laws and curses on account of disobedience to the divine rules and regulations.
The second reading from the apostle James (1:17-18. 21-22.27) we find further words of encouragement to pay attention to the word of God which represents God’s directives for our lives. James thus says: “You must do what the word tells you not just listen to it and deceive yourselves” (James 1:22). How very often we actually deceive ourselves by claiming to have (intellectual) knowledge of the divine laws and regulation but lack the (spiritual) will to carry them out. We see this happening in our society everyday with those who make and execute the laws. Syria is in turmoil today because the leader whose duty includes but not restricted to protecting the lives of the citizens and maintaining peace has turned around to kill the people in their numbers and bending the laws to suite his capricious whims. St James is telling us that obedience to the word of God makes us authentic and acceptable children to Him while by being disobedient we deceive ourselves. Deceiving ourselves here means that the things we do will come back to us as retribution. Why would someone start a fire that will burn him or her?
In the gospel reading we are presented with an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees with their religious cousins, the Scribes. If we set the life of Jesus as a screen story, he (Jesus) will qualify as the protagonist while the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees and others will form the antagonist group. This group seemed to have had one common interest (apart from their doctrinal difference) and that was to attack Jesus Christ. Their whole concern was to catch Jesus on something offensive to the law (See Luke 20:20). Their spying eyes went even to where the disciples of Jesus were eating; they followed them to their kitchen. The gospel spoke about this group noticing that the disciples of Jesus Christ did not wash their hands before eating, which in their estimation was tradition of the elders; note well, not the law of God. They questioned Jesus Christ on this and his response disclosed to us what actually constituted their lives. Our Lord quoted the book of Isaiah (29:13) for them where God made a distinction between lips service and heartfelt worship. Here our Lord made it clear that his opponents were concerned about the letters of the law and never the heart and spirit of the law. They were more interested in strict external show.
Furthermore our Lord used the opportunity to show that externalities are mere frivolities, the more enduring things are those things that proceed from the heart. Sin generally begins from the heart. Before a criminal strikes, he/she must have conceived the idea in the heart. Wickedness, strife, envy, and disobedience of the divine laws proceed from the heart. The best fight against evil is from the heart. It is at this point that the heart becomes a very important element for our reflection in view of obedience to the laws of God. The obedient person is one who believes in his or her heart that it is worthwhile to do the will of God. To be obedient to God we need to restructure the contents of our hearts; to be obedient to divine rules and regulations, we should empty our hearts of those things that block us from knowing that we can gain life and our eternal possession by being obedient. You are actually what your heart is made of. Often we speak of someone as wicked, good, cheerful etc on account of what we perceive as coming from the heart of the person. Good men and woman are not known by their looks but by their attitude and attitude manifests what constitutes us.
Last Sunday Joshua challenged us to make a choice to serve or not to serve the almighty God. This Sunday, Moses is telling those who had made the choice to serve God that they have a grave obligation to pay attention to His words in obedience. Furthermore Jesus instructs that it is more effective to pay attention to the heart and spirit of the law than on the letters of the law. Hence the obedience should be heartfelt not show-based. We are challenged this Sunday not to be merely religious, we should more expectantly spiritual; that is the source of obedience to divine laws.
Happy Sunday and have a blessed week ahead.