(Readings of the Holy Mass – Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
A few months ago, I was speaking with a woman who was getting married in a few weeks. We were talking casually about the upcoming wedding. I asked if she was hoping for good weather. Her response was immediate but relaxed. She said: “It doesn’t matter, I’m marrying my best friend and that’s all I care about.” It was a beautiful witness to the heart of her relationship with her fiancé. The “heart” of the relationship was the love they shared in friendship. Love was at the center of their relationship and it would be the basis for their marriage. This weekend will see the blessing of married couples in many parishes as Saint Valentine’s Day approaches. God’s blessings will be invoked upon couples as they seek strength in living out their bond of love.
Love lies at the heart of our faith. We profess belief in the God who is love (cf. I John 4:8). Christian sacramental marriage is one of the witnesses of this love. Married couples, in giving and receiving love, witness to the love between God and His People. The commitment of married love recalls the ever-reliable faithfulness of God. Jesus points to this enduring bond in marriage when He prohibits divorce which we hear in today’s gospel.
The gospel passage for today’s liturgy continues Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in The Gospel According to Matthew. One aspect of this section of the Sermon is the relationship between “law” and “love,” even though the word “love” is not mentioned.
The “law” referred to here is the “Law of God.” The “law” is many times summarized by the Ten Commandments which are part of the “law” but not the whole of it. The law is contained in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament). The law is tied to the covenant between God and Israel. Hence when the term “Mosaic law” or “covenant” or “Law of the Lord (or of God)” or simply “law” is used, it is a reference to this collection of laws and the covenant of love which they represent.
Jesus introduces His teaching on the law emphasizing its importance and value saying: “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, until all things have taken place.”
In reference to the Kingdom of God which He has been proclaiming since the beginning of the ministry, Jesus says: “But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Many people find an interpretive key in the final line of this introduction: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Jesus clearly emphasizes the import of the law. The question now moves to just how to live the law; in other words, how is the law to be observed. Jesus’ critique of the scribes and Pharisees, here and in other places in the gospel, deal with this question. Jesus’ criticism is that they have a certain superficiality in observing the law. It is as though they create a façade. Their focus is on particular laws but lose sight of “the Law.” Jesus then says that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven one’s righteousness “must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.” In other words, a disciple must observe the “heart” of the law from one’s “heart.” At another time when he is asked: “What is the greatest law” He replies: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) Jesus develops the contrast regarding the observance of the law through a series of contrasts; four of which are included in the passage we hear today.
The relationship between “law” and “love” is seen in the internalization of these commands. Here they are seen in the context of God’s relationship with His people as well as the manner in which the people relate to one another. The relationship is a relationship of love – again from the heart.
The contrasts begin with “You have heard it said to your ancestors..” Then a particular commandment of the law is given. At this point Jesus says: “But I say to you…” A superficial approach may focus on a very narrow or explicit reading of the particular law. This would be the approach of the “scribes and Pharisees.” Jesus goes much further in His interpretation of the particular law. Take, for example, the command “thou shall not kill.” On a surface level, it means that one should not take the life of the innocent. Jesus’ teaching goes much further into the meaning of and purpose for that particular law. Jesus’ approach is one of healing, mercy and ultimately love. He says do not linger in anger. In other words, heal the relationship do not destroy it (by killing a person) or let it linger in a damaged state. Another example would be the command prohibiting adultery. It is not enough just not to avoid committing an act of adultery. Jesus goes much further. He teaches that one should not look at another person with lust. He internalizes the particular command. Rather than letting an eye wander, keep it focused on one’s spouse. Marriage creates a bond of commitment between the husband and wife. This bond needs to be nourished and developed, this is where the spouses should have their “eye” or focus. It is as if He is saying develop this relationship of love – a love that reflects and participates in my love for you and the Father’s love for His People.
Jesus’ call to internalize the “law” is the call to love. Love involves a decision, an intention, and action. Sirach, in the first reading for today’s liturgy, says it succinctly: “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” God gives us the law of love which inherently involves freedom. The freedom He gives us is the “freedom to love” and the “freedom for love.”
Of all creation, humans are the ones who have the ability to love; because humans have the freedom to love.
Obedience to the law, in other words, freely deciding to live the law, means to love as God loves. So, as we proclaim together in the responsorial, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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