In science, laws are just an expression (in mathematical code) of patterns we find in nature. Thus we learn in high school physics, for example, that Newton’s equation (F=ma) is a law that describes how things move. This law is enough to get you to the moon. Circumvent this law and you just might end up going on a tangent toward a fiery landing on the sun.
Something of this sort is being described in the Scriptures today. “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him. (1 Sir 15:15-20)”
If only life could be as simple again as a true-or-false exam. Why do we even have to be given a choice between life and death? Isn’t that choice a no-brainer? What disables us from discerning which is deathly and which isn’t? Why should we be asked to choose between good and evil, between truth and falsehood? Have we not learned how false begets false? Can we not see how even a little lie compounds itself, becoming bigger and heavier until the deception becomes us and we end up strangers to ourselves and to each other? Why do we even need to be commanded to love? Why must love be codified into law? Isn’t love as easy and natural as magnetism? Where and how and why do we fall out of its orbit?
We know how difficult these choices can be at certain junctures in our lives. We are mired by the multiple choices we’ve made (some of them fallen and nearly irreversible) and the compromises we’ve had to take. We do not like entanglements in our lives, but when they happen, they are likely tied to decisions we have made out of fear, envy, enmity, apathy, obsession, or greed.
And so we need to be told. We need these commandments. We need to tell these to each other. We need to be reminded. Every so often, we need to be mindful of the things that make for life and goodness and truth. We need to remember who we are, for whom we live, and whose love it is that labors to bring us to life. We need to remember for each other. If these laws or commandments (even those carved in stone) will help us remember, let us by all means be governed by them.
The added entanglement in all this is that over time, commandments can have a life of their own. They end up ruling over us rather than God reigning in love over our choices and commitments. They become burdensome, acting as barriers to be hurdled or demands to be met to appease an exacting God.
It does not help that we ourselves are readily moved more by fear than love, by terror rather than mercy, by dread of the fires of hell than by desire for the warmth of heaven. It does not help that we have difficulty outgrowing our infantile notions of a God who we think would rather require submission than delight in our freedom. It does not help that when we grow old, we grow to be jaded about the way the world works, arguing any which way that we are all of us stained just the same.
And so we end up gaming the law and commandments, preferring the letter to the spirit, going through the motions of keeping the law, divorcing the moral from the legal, all the while absolving ourselves with our self-earned rightness before God and neighbor.
Jesus says to us today, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He tells how it was with the big sins like murder and adultery and lying. Then he stretches the point by mentioning that even anger and lust and flip-flopping can be just as grievous a concern as those big-ticket items. Surpassing righteousness has nothing to do with a stricter regime or greater compliance; it is simply getting into the very sense and spirit of the law.
After all, laws and commandments are just expressions of a human and divine desire for integrity or wholeness in our relationships, including our relationship with God. Only when we place these laws in their true context, which is that of a loving and just relationship with God and neighbor, do we surpass the false righteousness of the Pharisees.
Obeying Newton’s law will always be enough to get us to the moon. Going to heaven will surely take more than just religious compliance with commandments (even those that are engraved in stone).
[by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ]