What Is the Purpose of the Law? Reply

Reflection on the Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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“Moses Breaking the Ten Commandments,” Rembrandt

At first glance, Jesus comes out swinging in this Sunday’s Gospel reading: I have not come to abolish the law but to TIGHTEN THE SCREWS!

No. That’s not what he says. He says that he comes to fulfill it. In other words, he plans to bring God’s plan to its fruition. To understand just what that means, we need to know what the point of the law is in the first place.

The purpose of the law is to teach. What does the law teach us?

The funny thing about us humans is we think laws are there to keep us in line. This cynical attitude is due mostly to the penalty we might incur from breaking the law. After all, when it comes to incentives for following the law we are more often presented with sticks than with carrots. But the first two readings and the Psalm for today present the true reward for abiding by the law: living in accord with God’s wisdom brings fulfillment to God’s people. “Blessed are they who follow the Law of the Lord!”(Psalm 119:1)

To understand that the purpose of the law is to teach us how to live as God’s people, we need to look at the first law God gave to humanity:

“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

The first law God gave us was “Be fruitful…” (and you thought we were going to say, “Don’t touch that that tree or you’ll die!”). All God’s ordinances are for our good, for us to be who we are made to be, and live the way we are meant to live. From the beginning God’s decrees are all beautiful, all positive, all about life and fulfillment.

In the following chapter, the first instruction God gives to Adam is to tend and keep the garden (Gen. 2:15). God’s ordinance for mankind is to actively take charge of God’s creation. Recognizing that everything we need comes from God, we assume positive ownership of the resources God has placed in our hands and order them properly toward their good and fruitful end. The natural outcome is that we all benefit, not just from God’s providence, but from our taking part in it, according the way God ordered it from the beginning.

So far, it’s all carrots, no need for sticks. It is inherently understood that we are meant to pursue what it good. By implication, we also inherently know we should avoid what is not good for our nature. Hence, to the original man and woman, the following precept wouldn’t have come as a surprise:

“You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:17-18)

In other words, God says it’s not good for us, then we should avoid it. End of story.

But it’s not the end of the story. Adam and Eve failed to trust God, rebelled against him, and the consequences were death and misery for mankind. Thereafter, humanity would tend toward disorder. The purpose of the Torah – the rest of the story – is about reestablishing the original order God intended from the beginning.

The first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, are called the Torah, which means law in Hebrew. When we think “law” we generally think of a codified set of rules or precepts with penalties set in place for various infractions. But the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – is more anecdotal, filled with epic narratives, than it is a catalogue of dry moral precepts or social mores. The obvious exception is the Book of Leviticus, which reads more like a book of laws in the strict sense of the term. But the bulk of the Torah isn’t like that. So for the Hebrews there must have been another meaning to the word “law” besides a rigorous legal code if the greater part of the Torah instructed them by means of story.

Which brings us to the real purpose of the law, which is to teach. And that’s what stories do, they teach.

The Purpose of the Law Is to Teach

The story continues… Shortly after Adam and Eve’s Fall, the Torah reveals that there are two types of people, those who “call upon the name of the Lord” and those who are set on “making a name for themselves”, i.e., without God. According to the law of entropy, it’s virtually impossible for the two to coexist: God’s people still tend toward disorder and can’t blend in with the rest of humanity without being consumed and dissolved into their culture. If left to their own designs, they will follow the path of least resistance and forfeit their identity as the people of God. The will not flourish. They will perish.

In the thick of it all, God calls Abraham, a man who wants to do the right thing, but who’s also a bit off when it comes to what that entails, concretely. For example, Abraham tells Pharaoh that his wife is just his sister, in order to save his own skin, leaving the door open for Pharaoh to sleep with her. That’s Abraham, friends, the man God singled out to be our “Father in Faith.”

Abraham obviously needs to be taught a lesson or two before he can serve as our model. Note that God does not give Abraham an instruction manual. Abraham will learn through what he suffers. For us, the hope is that we should learn from his example, assuming we’ve got it in us to pursue good and avoid evil to begin with.

Lesson One: Marriage between One Man and One Woman, Exclusively and Lifelong, Is a Good Thing; Anything outside of that Is Bad.

Take polygamy, for example. The Bible never explicitly says, “Thou shalt not practice polygamy,” or “He who engages in polygamy commits adultery” (but in today’s Gospel, Jesus says that if you even look at a woman the wrong way you’re guilty of adultery). What we see, rather, is that polygamy is “allowed.” That is, although it is not strictly speaking licit, God allows it to happen. Even though God never explicitly says “No” to polygamy, engaging in polygamous relationships goes against what God ordered from the beginning (Gen 2:24), so it will inevitably end in sorrow, not happiness. We intuitively know this, because it’s part of the law God wrote in our hearts from the beginning. But if we need more convincing, there’s the story of Abraham.

As we see it played out in the Bible, every time God’s people enter into polygamous relationships, as in the stories of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, it ends in misery. The households of these “just men” are constantly fraught with jealousy, insecurity, feminine/sibling rivalry, rape, incest, fratricide, and exile. What a way to live!

Does humanity really need explicit laws telling us to avoid these kinds of things? Maybe, but the Torah goes about teaching differently, and perhaps, more effectively. Through the constant narrative, God’s people learn from their forefathers’ pitiful example that certain lifestyles, like polygamy, can’t be tolerated because the consequences are intolerable. It is not the path to fulfillment.

Lesson Two: Worshipping the One, True God Is a Good Thing; Human Sacrifice Is Not on the List of Things God Want’s from You, because… It’s Bad. Inherently Bad.

This lesson should be quick and easy, because we get it – it’s one of those things written on our hearts. Killing our children goes against human fulfillment, so God doesn’t want it. No brainer, right?

We should assume that Abraham naturally understands this. Or should we, given Abraham’s less than stellar track record? He lived in a culture where men had concubines and multiple wives, which may have caused him to think that would be okay for him. So if the people around him sacrificed their children to idols, maybe that’s an okay thing too? Is it a reasonable thing for God to ask from us?

God’s plan was to “bring him out” to change his way of thinking and living, just as he would later bring Israel out of Egypt to worship the One, True God and live as God’s chosen people. We know how it turned out for Israel, with the Golden Cow incident. The message is clear that we can’t expect people to just be good. Sometimes God has to go to extremes to teach us what he wants and doesn’t want.

When God instructs Abraham to take his only son and offer him as a burnt offering, Abraham must have been thinking what anyone reading that story should think: “Why would God demand such a thing?”

Or else Abraham might have thought, “I guess God wants a human sacrifice, after all, that’s how other people satisfy their gods. It’s a tough ask, but if that’s what God wants, I’ll go along with it.” God allows Abraham to follow through with the plan right up to the point of tying up his son and getting ready to slaughter him. At the last second, God sends his angel to grab his knife swinging arm and yell “Stop!” It is not what God wants. Need we ask why?

The First Reading today, from Sirach, explains why: “No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.” In other words, we fundamentally know whether it is from God or not: God always wants what is good, never what is evil from us. Everybody gets that, right?

Right!

It’s like we inherently understand that good people don’t throw their neighbor under the bus. But still, because of our knack for finding new ways to do just that, apparently we do have to have it spelled out for us. We need the Ten Commandments. And then some.

And so, Jesus, who really loves us and knows us through and through, knows he has to spell it out for us very clearly: You’ve heard rumors that I’ve come to abolish the law. Don’t worry. If you want to take the law literally, don’t stop at what it says. Take adultery for example. Not committing adultery is not even a starter. How about don’t treat women like objects! From now on, let’s call that ‘the heart of adultery.’ If you need me to be more specific than that, start with this: control your eyes, guys.  (BVV: Biltrix Vernacular Version)

This may come across as a reprimand, but let us recall that before Jesus says that, just a few verses earlier in the same Sermon on the Mount he puts the message before us in a more positive, beautiful, fulfilling way: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Like Adam and Eve, in the beginning, this is what we’re really made for.

All in all, it’s incredibly simple. Sin ends in misery; fulfillment comes from doing God’s will. That’s all there is to it. The First Reading from Sirach, presents it to us with a visual:

[God] 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.

When Jesus says he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he means the purpose of the law is our fulfillment, as we read in this Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm: “Blessed are they who follow the Law of the Lord!” The simple truth of this precept is written on our hearts, deep within us, like a distant echo. With the grace of God, we can regain the simple innocence and wisdom to live it out, the way God intended from the beginning with no need for more and more written laws to instruct us. This is what Christ meant when he prayed:

Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth; you have revealed to little ones the mysteries of the kingdom. (Matthew 11:5)

Finally, for those who really needed to know, according to Youtube it’s pronounced:

That’s //SIGH-rack// not //Sri-RA-cha// (according to Youtube). Have a blessed day!

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