5 Sunday of Lent
One of the most common defence strategies employed by people caught red-handed is to assert that their dubious activities did not breach the law of the land. Quite often, such claims prove to be correct: the activities, though dubious, were in conformity with the letter of the law. The main problem with the written law is that it is incapable of foreseeing every possible combination of human activity and circumstance and – by extension - its outcomes, effects and results. It’s impossible to create law to regulate in minute detail the complexities of human society. Even when such attempts are made, usually by autocratic or dictatorial regimes, people’s creativity finds a way round such laws. Let me give you an example. By the end of the 18th century my home country was partitioned by its three neighbouring powers. After 120 years Poland briefly recovered its independence, only to fall under bestial Nazi occupation, and subsequently to come under tyrannical Soviet domination. For nearly two centuries my compatriots had to live under oppressive, sometimes openly hostile, laws. Circumventing those laws became a patriotic duty and a national sport to such an extent that a proverb was coined: ‘The law is for bypassing.’ Of course, the ability to find loopholes isn’t reserved solely to the Poles. It’s the daily bread and legitimate business model of many lawyers.
The requirement to adhere to the letter of the law isn’t exclusive to statutes put in place by civil authorities. So often have I been asked a certain type of question: ‘Father, is this or that a sin?’ In place of ‘this’ or ‘that’ a very specific situation is recalled. Effectively, the question is invariably a vehicle for: ‘How far can I push a moral boundary without actually committing a sin?’ Again, Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on such an attitude. A significant chunk of the Torah, part of the Old Testament considered holy by all factions in the Jewish faith, contains detailed laws and regulations. Jesus himself was asked by a Pharisee and a lawyer: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? (Matthew 22:36) Jesus’ response was in line with the proclamation in today’s first reading, a proclamation made by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. [...] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.’ That new covenant was set in opposition to the covenant written by Moses on tablets of stone; the covenant that was being sidestepped creatively, even when its letter was being kept. Jesus’ answer to the vital question of ‘which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ was simple: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
One might say that such a general and extremely broad legal framework effectively creates one massive loophole! It’s certainly true for narrow-minded, self-centred and selfish individuals. For the sake of such people we will always need good laws and effective law enforcement. However, being a follower of Jesus means aiming at and finding one’s way towards far higher ideals than mere legalistic correctness. As my Canon Law lecturer explained to me and my colleagues many years ago: ‘The Law sets the bog standard below which there’s the absolute pits, but the law doesn’t put limits on gallantry.’ In today’s gospel Jesus expands on this rather more elegantly: ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Admittedly, the concept doesn’t sound attractive at first glance. But such a demanding call is far more manageable when translated into tiny personal sacrifices made daily in the name of love for others. Let me give you one simple example. Using the phone while driving is forbidden by law. But because that law is hard to enforce, disrespectful of it and the safety, well-being and life of their fellow drivers, many drivers use their phones on the go. We see the tragic results of going against that law on our screens or we read about them in the newspapers, often accompanied by regret expressed belatedly by the offender, usually in his efforts to avoid a long sentence. My personal rule is to leave my mobile phone untouched and unanswered as long as I’m behind the wheel. I do this, not out of fear of being caught by the police but out of respect for my fellow road-users. That’s just one, simple, real-life example. There are many other small ways of losing your life for the sake of others; small ways of dying to your own selfishness; small ways of killing your self-absorption. Being a follower of Jesus has never been about achieving moral or legal perfection. Following Jesus is about becoming like him, in your own small, everyday ways.
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