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The freedom of the law

February 16, 2014

A reflection for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A. The readings are: Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 and Matthew 5:17-37.

Has anyone been watching the Olympics? I’m not a huge sports fan, but I’ve been following the Olympics (I have the app). But you know what I’ve been thinking about? All the rules. There are so many rules. There are rules in each individual sport, but there are also Olympic rules. There are rules about points and round robins and what the athletes can eat and not eat and even about what they can wear. I heard that there is an unspoken rule about how everyone must wear their country’s colours. Sport are fun and the Olympics are about pushing our limits as human beings, but we wouldn’t have any of that without all the rules.

I have to be honest because I didn’t come up with this on my own. I just read a book called The Catechism of Hockey by Alyssa Bormes (published by ACS Books). In it she speaks about all the rules of sport, using hockey as an example. So, let’s take hockey, that Olympic sport that all Canadians are watching. There are so many rules in hockey; rules about how many players can be on the ice at a given time and how long they can be on the ice; rules about penalties and power plays; about cross-checking, slashing and high-sticking; there are rules about overtime ad sudden death and when you go to shoot outs. There are even rules for the players when they’re off the ice – those of you who have kids in hockey leagues know all about the rules about what the kids have to wear on their way to the games and how early they need to be there and what happens if you miss a practice. There are even rules for parents and how much they have to volunteer and what fees have to be paid… there are a lot of rules. But no one complains, because we know that the rules are there for a reason. Hockey rules are there to protect the integrity of the sport. They are there to protect the players. The rules are there so that the players can be free to play the game.
Imagine a hockey game where no one is really following any rules; one team has 9 players on the ice and the other team has two goalies on at the same time; players are using whatever sticks they could find, broomsticks and shovels; there are three pucks and a couple of the players are using tennis balls… That would not be a very fun game to watch. In fact, it would not be hockey at all. What if you had a player who went on the ice wearing flip flops? No one would let him or her play. It’s just not smart or safe. The uniform is there to protect the players – to protect the game; but (you ask) what about that player’s individual freedom? What about his personal autonomy? No one would care about his personal freedom. Get off the ice! You want to play hockey, play by the rules! By now, I hope you know where I am going with this. Because that’s what the readings today are about.

Everyone accepts rules in hockey and in every sport. We accept rules in everything we do – I recently heard an interview with an airplane pilot and he said that there are so many rules for pilots. If you want to be a pilot, you have to follow a lot of rules. Well, duh! A pilot that flies by the seat of his pants, is a dead pilot. If a pilot follows the rules, he or she is free to fly anywhere. If I decide I want to drive and not follow the rules – drive in the middle of the road or on the left side of the road and I don’t stop at red lights, that’s not going to get me very far. But if I drive according to the rules, I am free to go anywhere I want. There’s a beautiful expression that says that a sailor who sails by the compass has the freedom of the seas. But somehow, when it comes to the rules of God, the rules of the Church, we have a problem: “Oh they are cramping my freedom.” “The Church is always telling us what to do” or the Church doesn’t want us to have fun.” God give us the Law to protect the integrity of the game. His laws protect the players. God’s laws are there so that we can be free to play the game.

But we have a choice. The first reading, from the Book of Sirach says that we can follow God’s commandments if we choose – we always have the choice. I love how it explains it: God places before us fire and water, we can choose where we put our hand. We have the freedom to not follow God’s laws. But if we follow the Law of the Lord, we will be saved. The Psalm today says,  “blessed is the one who follows the law of the Lord.” Another translation says, “happy are they who follow the law of the Lord.” But we have a choice. We can follow those laws blindly; there’s wisdom in that. But we also have the choice to try to understand why those laws are there. I think the problem is that we don’t understand why the rules are there. In hockey, once you’ve been catechised in hockey, you understand why the rules are there, but in Faith, we haven’t been catechised. So we can choose to be catechised. That’s the wisdom that St. Paul speaks about in the second reading from the 1st Letter to the Corinthians – the wisdom of God in giving us his law, yes but also the wisdom that we can have to choose to follow God’s law even when we don’t understand it – and the wisdom to go and learn about it so that we can let God write his law in our hearts.

Jesus says in the Gospel that he did not come to abolish the law; He came to fulfill it. We still have to follow the law, we have to do what the law says, follow the letter of the law. But because of Jesus, we now understand the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is what we do; the spirit of the law is why we do it.

It’s like having little children. We teach our kids that they shouldn’t touch the stove or “hold my hand when you cross the street.” They don’t have to understand why they have to do those things; they just have to do them. But as they get older, they begin to understand. You can touch the stove, but if you touch the burner when it’s hot, you’ll get burned. You don’t have to hold my hand when you cross the street, but make sure you look both ways and that a car is not coming, ‘cause you’ll get run over. When we are little we have to learn the letter of the law; when we are older we have to understand the spirit of the law. And Jesus makes it very clear that the spirit of the law is always love. Most of us are not murderers or adulterers or even major liars. So we think those laws don’t apply to us, but Jesus is reminding us that it is about love. We are called to love. We have to be better than the Pharisees who only blindly follow the letter of the law.

But it’s not that simple. Before we can get to the spirit of the law, we have to understand the letter of the law. That is why in our parish, Holy Martyrs of Japan in Bradford, Ontario, during Lent we are going to have 4 sessions, to learn what the Church teaches about love, marriage, sex and relationships. That’s an area where a lot of people have problems with the law. It’s going to be four Thursdays, starting on March 6th (not four Thursdays in a row, so check the bulletin) and I invite all married couples to come and learn how we can make our marriages better. It you got married last year or if you got married 40 years ago, come. We can all learn from each other. And if you’re getting married this year, come as well. It is very specifically for married couples, but if you’re single, come as well. We can all learn.  Together let’s learn how we can make our marriages better.

And it’s not a total coincidence that we are starting with marriages – I was thinking about this on Valentine’s Day. It may be easy to understand why rules exist when we look at hockey, but if you want to understand the spirit of the law, the best place to look is Marriage. There are things that we can do or that we shouldn’t do that will make our marriages better, but we don’t do them because they are rules – we do them because we love. That’s where we need to be with regard to following the Law of the Lord. If you want to be free, if you want to be happy; love the Lord. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that “no eye has seen and no ear has hear what God has prepared for those who love Him.” But also follow the law because, “happy are they who follow the law of the Lord.”

Photo credit: CNS photo/Tom Szczerbowski, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters. Jan. 17, 2014

One Comment
  1. Stephanie (Butcher) permalink

    What a great homily, Pedro!


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