A new pastor arrived in a small town in Washington State. He was there to minister to the community that was largely comprised of loggers. One day as he was out walking by the river he was amazed to see the large cut trees devoid of all their branches rolling down the river to the lumber mill. He was fascinated to see some of the loggers on top of the logs.
The closer he looked the more he realized they were cutting the ends off. He was puzzled. “Wouldn’t they do that on land, before the logs were placed in the river?” he asked himself. Then he began to notice that all the ends of the logs had been branded, showing they were owned by another operation further upstream. These men were cutting off the brand mark and claiming them as their own.
So it was that the following Sunday, the pastor got up to preach. His sermon was on the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” Many of the loggers were there, including the ones he had seen on the river. It was a good sermon and everyone was thanking the pastor on the way out of church, even the loggers. “They got it,” the pastor thought.
Later in the week, the pastor was again walking along the riverbank. And again, the men were cutting the brand marks off the logs and rebranding them. So on Sunday when he got up to preach, he thought “maybe I have to be a little more specific.” To this end he gave a sermon titled: “Thou shalt not cut off the ends of thy neighbor’s logs.”
The story uses humor to remind us that it is sometimes easy to forget, overlook, or even disregard some of the most basic commands of the Lord. Today we are invited to take a closer look at the Law of God and what it offers us on the journey of life.
The first reading for Sunday’s liturgy comes from the Book of Sirach. In this passage, Sirach extols the law of the Lord as a rule of life. The reasoning runs like this: If God who is all good, all knowing and all loving tells us to do something, that it will lead to life, then we can rely on that. Thus, keeping the commandments are good for us to do.
Sirach reminds us, though, that we have a choice. We are not forced to keep the commandments even though doing so will lead to life. He writes: “Before man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given him.” God invites us to the path of life, but we have to make the decision to follow.
Jesus teaches us about God’s law. In the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that serves as the Gospel reading for Sunday’s liturgy, Jesus says he has come to fulfill the law. He is quite emphatic about the importance of the law – “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law… .” However, Jesus takes the law to a whole new level of meaning. Some scholars call this an internalization of the law.
So when he considers the fifth commandment, “thou shall not kill,” he says, “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” When considering the sixth commandment, “thou shall not commit adultery,” he says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” When considering oaths, he says that we should not need to take oaths to testify to our honesty and integrity – “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no,’” he says.
Jesus gives more examples as the passage continues in the full Gospel account. In considering our lives and the choices we make in life, we have a guideline and a “rule” – the law of God, to help us. Jesus’ teaching reminds us that this cannot be a superficial part of our lives but it must be taken to heart and lived in the day-to-day decisions we make and the actions we take.
St. Paul in the passage from First Corinthians reminds us of God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom, which is reflected in his law, is eternal and supreme. Paul contrasts this with the “wisdom of the age” – whatever that “age” may be.
St. Paul speaks of the wisdom of God that is present to us through the gift of the Spirit. It is through the presence of the Spirit that we are able to enter into the mystery of God’s wisdom, to know his will and to live accordingly. Our positive response in following the Lord and his way is an act of love.
St. Paul concludes that the reward for such love is so great that it is beyond human comprehension and understanding. He writes: “What eye has not seen, nor ear has not heard, and has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
God invites us to life. The path he shows was first known in the law. Jesus brings the law to fulfillment then sends the Spirit to dwell in and among us. The Way of the Lord leads to life and love. Today, we are once again invited to respond and to walk in his way.