I remember going to “Confession” when I was a child, giving my list of sins, along with how many times I’d committed each one. How the priest must have smiled as my class processed through with our tales of lying 5 times, yelling at a sibling 8 times, and disobeying a parent 3 times! Then he dutifully assigned us our penance of 5 Our Fathers, 5 Hail Mary’s, and 5 Glory Be’s, adding to it only if the list was particularly long or egregious.
Later, as the sacrament was re-named and re-defined, I learned that God didn’t really want my laundry list. It was more important to determine the nature of my frequent lies and what prompted me to tell them, how to control my anger and treat siblings with respect, and how to gain my desired independence without destructive rebellion. In other words, the spirit of the law supersedes the letter of it.
I suspect that’s what Jesus was driving at when he said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He knew that laws keep social order and are necessary for living or worshipping together. At their best, laws reflect what we value as people, what we believe in, and how we envision our relationships and the world. They uphold the baseline of our moral code, promote dignity and respect, and both command and deserve obedience.
Yet laws created by human beings are only as perfect as the human beings who create them, and laws that “worked” in one era need to be revised as we come to new understandings of theology, humanity, worship, and the created world. Even laws written in scripture have proven to be imperfect (i.e. as Catholics we do not obey all the laws laid out in the Pentateuch, nor do women cover their heads and remain silent in church). Indeed, Jesus had no problem breaking laws on a regular basis –failing to wash his hands, speaking to unaccompanied women in public, overturning tables in the temple, eating with sinners, or healing on the Sabbath. Clearly, he did not demand blind obedience but critical examination, with the fulfillment of God’s laws of mercy, love, justice, and compassion as the primary considerations.
This is particularly important now, with resounding calls for revisions of laws in many arenas. It does not serve us well to ensconce ourselves at either extreme – simply throwing out long-standing rules, disciplines, and laws, nor enshrining them in stone and refusing to change. We need the same type of critical examination that Jesus modeled, involving deep understanding of the Church’s teachings, sincere engagement with those affected, open dialogue and debate, and a keen eye to fulfilling God’s laws of mercy, love, justice, and compassion. Rather than contentiousness, name-calling, and entrenchment, we need deep and constant prayer, cooperation and attention to the Spirit’s call, discerning when and how to revise or create laws to be both faithful and pastoral.
Although I don’t have the authority to make the decisions, I do not need to remain on the sidelines. I, too, can participate in the process and work for my beliefs. In fact, I have a responsibility as a member of the Body of Christ to do so. I can choose at least one, and work to be educated and faithful but critical. I need to be unafraid of open and respectful debate, especially engaging with those most affected. I need to obey most of the time, and yet be willing to work for change when necessary, even if on occasion it requires overturning some tables. Let’s work together to build a just, compassionate society and Church, guided by laws that Jesus himself would deem worthy of obedience.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://corgenius.com/.