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What is the Spirit of the Law?

November 4, 2012

A reflection on Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and Mark 12:28-34

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad. These are words that every Jewish person knows: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses presents two ways of living our relationship with God. First, it sounds like it’s all about the rules. Moses tells the people, ‘you have to follow these rules or else you won’t make it into the Promised Land. You have to learn them and teach them to your children and you can’t add anything to them or take anything away from them.’ It doesn’t matter why you follow these rules; just do it. But if you read with careful attention, you would see that if you follow these rules, ‘if you observe them diligently, this will show your wisdom and discernment’ (Deut 4:1-2, 6-8). Well, if you’re using wisdom and discernment, then you’re not just following the rules blindly! If you’re using wisdom and discernment, it means that you’re understanding the law and thinking about it; you’re not just following the letter of the law; but you’re understanding the spirit of the law.

So you have the letter of the law, what you have to do.  A chapter later Moses tells them what they have to do: The 10 Commandments. This is where all Catholic moral teaching comes from: The 10 Commandments; pretty important stuff.

But then you have the spirit of the law: This is why you should follow these commandments. Moses gives them that a chapter later with what has become the prayer that every Jewish person knows, the Sh’ma Israel: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might (Deut 6:4-5). That’s the spirit of the law. That’s why we do it. Because of love.

And that’s what this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7 is all about. The Pharisees were very concerned with rules and behaviour. There were things that you could not do if you wanted to be saved. So they were worried about coming into contact with blood and dead bodies; they criticise Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath because you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath; they worried about who was eating with tax collectors and sinners and they worried about how they should pray and fast and what they ate. I suppose that’s fine, except that they spent too much time criticising, judging and judging others who did not follow the letter of the law. They were “pharisaical” about it!

And in Mark 7, they are complaining because some of Jesus’ disciples (who probably were not even Jews) do not wash their hands before eating. And Jesus says to them, ‘you guys, you’re more concerned about washing your hands than you are about following the 10 Commandments.’ In Matthew’s version of the same story Jesus actually tells them, ‘you’re concerned about these traditions, but then you go home and you don’t honour your father and your mother.’ In other words, ‘you’re worried about all these man-made rules (the 613 commandments) and you’ve lost the spirit of the law.’ It’s not washing your hands that makes you clean; it’s what’s in your heart that makes you clean.

The story from Mark 12 is different. The scribes were not a religious sect (like the Pharisees and the Saducees), although many scribes probably belonged to some religious sects. We know some scribes were Pharisees. It’s not clear if the scribe in Mark 12 was a Pharisee. But his exchange with Jesus is very pleasant. It’s not a challenge or even a discussion.  He does not criticize or attack. He asks Jesus a question, Jesus answers and the young scribe agrees. In a sense, Jesus is reinforcing the same message: Of all the 613 commandments, really, none are as important as the Sh’ma (even though the Sh’ma is not a commandment) because that is the bottom line, love. And Jesus adds something else that is also not a commandment, from Leviticus 19:18. This is the natural and logical result of loving God: love your neighbour as yourself.

And this conversation is really relevant for us today. For many of us religion is still only about following rules. And some people are very concerned about certain behaviour: We have to dress a certain way to go to church, we can’t eat meat on Fridays, we have to genuflect in front of the Tabernacle, we have to bow to the altar, we have to have multiple candles on the altar, we can only have organ music at Mass, we have to receive Communion on the tongue, we have to kneel to receive Communion…

I’m not going to tell you that these are not important, but we have to know why we do these things. If I genuflect in front of the Tabernacle because I’m know that you’re watching me and I want you to think that I’m such a holy deacon, and then I go in the sacristy and start gossiping about a parishioner… That defeats the purpose.

And the danger is that then everything becomes about rules. We read the Catechism and interpret it to be a constitution or a rule book. It’s not. The Catechism has to be understood through the prism of Church, of “Ecclesia.” And that prism is always going to be a pastoral one, not a doctrinal one. If you study canon law, you’ll see that it is the same.

An added danger is that we begin to see God only as a judge and we begin to judge others. It’s no wonder that there are so many out there who are self-professed Church police officers. They spend their time throwing the first stones and worrying about the sliver in other people’s eyes. For them, it’s all about the rules. They may be good people, who are trying to follow God’s rules and that’s how they show their love to God (like the Pharisees), but they are not very good a loving their neighbour. (And Jesus adds that we are to love our enemies!) They have lost their sense of compassion and mercy. But merely following rules does not make sense because God is not a God of rules. God is a God of relationship. That’s why Jesus said the greatest commandment is the “Sh’ma.”

[Let me make an aside here and clarify that I am not talking about morality. Morality is those 10 Commandments. Those are non-negotiable. Still, how we deal with the nuances of these is always going to be pastoral. Take murder, for example. Murder is a sin. It is mortal sin. But we don’t excommunicate the murderer and banish him forever. We invite him to reconciliation. And even if he were to refuse reconciliation, we have to love him anyway. However, in most cases, we are not talking about murder; we are talking about someone disagreeing or misunderstanding Church teaching. And we forget that for a sin to be mortal, the sinner needs to know and understand his actions and he has to do it with intent. Most of the time it ends up being about someone who welcomes someone who is “outside” the Church. Or it’s a question of who can or cannot receive a Sacrament. Since we cannot judge the state of anyone’s soul, we must always err on the pastoral side.]

It’s like in marriage. What nourishes a marriage is not that husband and wife follow a certain set of rules. Of course, there are things that you can do that will help your marriage, but you don’t do them because they are rules; you do them out of love. In a relationship, you don’t follow the letter of the law; you follow the spirit of the law. And God is a God of relationship.

I don’t want to insinuate that those who are more legalistic have to grow up, but I do see that it is often new Christians who tend to be more legalistic and so I do believe that this is related to growing up. It’s good to leave home; go to university. It’s good to figure things out on our own. It’s good to question things. As children we are taught the letter of the law but as we grow, we have to figure out the spirit of the law.

In a way, that’s what the Second Vatican Council was about. As you know, this year we celebrate 50 years of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. The Church had gone through a long period of just blindly following rules: People didn’t read the bible, people didn’t learn catechism, you just went to Mass and it was in a different language; you got your Sacraments, you said your prayers and no one knew why we had to do all these things. And a lot of people thought that the Council was going to throw out all those rules (alot of people still think that the Council threw out all the rules). But Pope John XXIII said he was opening the windows to let in fresh air not to throw out the furniture! He was not going to abolish the law; he was going to help us get to the spirit of the law. The Council helped us focus not so much on the rules, but more on the relationship.

And that’s what Jesus Christ said as well; ‘I have come, not to do away with the law, but to fulfill the law’ (Matthew 5:17). That’s what it is: Not to keep us as robots that follow blindly, and just do what we’re told, that would not be love; but to help us grow up, to help us love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.

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