When I was 5 weeks into my first pregnancy I had some minor bleeding and cramping, but my doctor believed I would be OK. That afternoon my husband and I were in the car about an hour from home when I felt the bleeding and cramping noticeably increase. He stepped on the gas and headed to the hospital. Five minutes later, an officer pulled us over. Despite our explanation, he gave John a speeding ticket and said he should tell it to the judge. We were shocked that the letter of the law took precedence over my and our baby’s health. (I had a miscarriage that night and the judge threw out the ticket).
This officer would agree with Jesus’ statement in today’s Gospel that no one should disobey the smallest letter of the law. It is easy to be legalistic. It makes things very black-and-white. It promotes delineation of who is a “good Catholic” by how many laws they strictly follow, and allows a claim of superiority based on unfailing adherence. However, it is dehumanizing.
Jesus knew this. By his statement, he clearly did not want anyone to toss out rightful authority and the necessary systems of laws. Yet by his other teachings and his actions, he also countered a legalistic attitude. He personally broke established laws regularly and got into trouble for going against the authorities, always citing a higher law or a more encompassing principle behind the laws, such as unconditional love, healing, and pastoral compassion.
This is the same dilemma we often face today. Do we follow the letter of the law or do we make some accommodation for the pain, fear, and desperation that cause people to do so? Do we deny Communion to those who dissent from any part of Catholic teaching, or do we welcome every one of us sinners to the table regardless? Do we bar men who left the priesthood to marry from fulfilling any ministerial role, or can we embrace the many gifts that made them excellent priests in the first place? Do we work tirelessly to promote the legal aspects of our faith, or are most of our efforts on ensuring that the justice Jesus longed for is extended to all people, especially those who are marginalized, poor, and in need?
Obviously these are not all either-or situations. Just as Jesus did, we need to balance the necessity and value of rightful laws and authority with the equal necessity for compassion, acceptance, and love. Look around you today. How are we doing? What can we do better? That’s the true question behind these readings.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.