rule-based goodness

Reflections on the readings for Sunday 16 February 2014 [Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37 (Find the readings here)

The response to today’s psalm is: “Blessed are they who follow the Law of the Lord!” What role does law play in our spirituality? Does legalism lead to life? The Old Testament views divine law as life-giving. Ben Sira links obedience to the commandments with trust in God. If we trust God’s wisdom and God’s love for us, then living God’s way makes sense. The sage is confident that God has given to us human beings both the power to make choices about how to live and also the ability to follow through on our choices. What we don’t get to choose, however are the consequences tied to particular choices. We can’t choose a sinful life and a peaceful and happy one. The path we walk determines the destination.

The whole of Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the bible, is a celebration of and meditation upon the law of the Lord, variously referred to as decrees, statutes, precepts, commandments, and the words of God. Law or Torah more broadly understood can describe Scripture in general, not just the legal material. The psalm expresses the conviction that here one finds wisdom and life. But this type of spirituality doesn’t just make a list of the commandments and then try to obey them. It is driven by a desire to know God, and requires reflection and discernment. It involves the heart.

Rightly or wrongly, in the New Testament the Pharisees have come to stand for a very legalistic approach to life, an excessive concern with outward adherence to rules that is not always matched with a deep spirituality of the heart. Jesus’ followers are called to a different way of living. It is possible to read Jesus’ teaching as a call to an even more stringent legalism, where it is not only outward actions but also inner thoughts and desires that need to be policed. But I think that what Jesus is calling for is qualitatively different. Elsewhere he sums up obedience to the commandments in the command to love God and love one another. Where the focus is on rules and regulations, we can get a perfect scorecard and yet fail in the command to love from the heart. In fact, a life governed by too many rules is often a morally shallow one, because the faithful rule-observer does not need to live consciously and reflectively to be ‘good’. The righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees requires of us deep integrity and profound respect for others. It also requires that we act intentionally.

Paul refers to a wisdom for the mature. When we’re children we sometimes have to do as we’re told ‘because I said so’. But as we grow up we internalise values and think through our commitments. What we do and why we do it should move beyond simple compliance to authority for authority’s sake. If the Spirit of God who searches the deep things of God dwells within us, and if we learn to live by that Spirit, that is all the more reason to live and act from our inner convictions. That doesn’t mean that more ‘spiritual’ people can live however they like. Those who revel in their freedom may be just as unreflective and unconscious, even more so, than the scrupulous obeyer-of-rules. If we are unloving and selfish we are sinning, however good we may feel about ourselves. When we embrace and mature into God’s counter-cultural wisdom, knowing what we are doing and why, empowered by the Spirit of God, we will live with love and integrity. The kind of community that would emerge if God’s people were doing that right is something more amazing than we’ve hitherto dared to imagine.

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About Jessie Rogers

I'm a Scripture scholar and Godly Play practitioner living in Ireland.
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