The Letter of the Law
In the Gospel for February 12thth, the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus says to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This was powerful and radical stuff back in Jesus’ day. It challenged the religious authorities and the local power structure. And it ignited a firestorm that would eventually lead to his arrest and crucifixion.
The scribes were legal experts on the Law, the commandments given to Moses by God; and the Pharisees scrupulously followed and held others to the letter of that Law. They were very big on rules and regulations. But Jesus tells them, and us, that it’s about much more than the letter of the law. It’s about mercy and forgiveness and inclusion and the choices we are faced with in everyday life. It’s about loving and honoring our neighbor just because he or she exists, just because he or she is a fellow child of God.
Jesus affirms the Law, the commandments handed down to Moses: we shouldn’t kill each other, we shouldn’t cheat on our spouse, and we shouldn’t perjure ourselves. But he goes beyond that. He tells us that God’s law is not only a matter of external actions like killing, or committing adultery, or lying under oath. God’s law is also about what happens deep within our hearts and minds. It’s about anger and hurtful words; it’s about gossip, bullying, hate and exclusion; it’s about lustful thoughts, and dishonesty in our transactions and our relationships.
In the end, it’s all about the choices we make. The choices between good and evil that we hear about in Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Sirach; and the hidden wisdom that Saint Paul tells us about in the second reading: the wisdom that God has implanted within our hearts calling us to know the difference between right and wrong.
How radical was Jesus? “If you bring your gift to the altar, and when you get there, you remember that another person has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and make peace with that person, and then, and only then, come back and offer your gift.”
Each night before we go to sleep, before we say our prayers, and each Sunday before we come to the Lord’s Table, let us look deeply within our hearts and ask ourselves if there is any unfinished business in our life: any anger, any dishonesty, any lust, any meanness, any bigotry? And if the answer is ‘yes’, let us go and make peace with the persons we may have hurt, peace within ourselves, and peace with our loving God.
Jesus wasn’t kidding around or just making suggestions. He really meant what he said.
With love, Deacon Lex
Lex Ferrauiola is a husband, father, grandfather and a Catholic deacon serving as a pastoral minister and hospital chaplain within the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. His newest book, All Shall Be Well: Finding God Among the Pots and the Pans is available now.