Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9
In all of Jesus’ teaching, his primary concerns were love, justice, and inclusion. Yet he knew these things were not individual pursuits. We come to God as a body, a collective of imperfect people trying as best we can to bring the reign of God to earth. In order to function as a body, we need guidance, rules, and yes, laws, and sometimes those laws are very demanding.
In this text, which scholars agree is the most controversial passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says he upholds the law and we are to follow every last detail of every letter in it. Indeed, the law serves no purpose if each individual can break it whenever it demands too much or when it suits their personal purposes. Yet in practice Jesus regularly broke the law in order to minister to people, he taught that love of God and neighbor are the ultimate fulfillment of the law, and he had very unflattering names for those who laid the burden of law on others. Looking further into the scriptures, these verses contradict St. Paul in Galatians and Romans. And frankly, they contradict every faith denomination on earth, since none of them require adherence to all 613 precepts of Old Testament law.
Perhaps, then, Matthew included this passage as a plea for balance. The law, along with the entire revelation of God, is important. Even the smallest laws have wisdom within them, something to teach us about our relationship with God. All laws, and especially those upheld by the teaching authority of the Church, hold great weight and cannot be easily dismissed.
At the same time, Jesus did not believe that all laws should go unchallenged. In both the religious and secular sphere, he dissented, pushed back, or even violated laws that he felt were unjust. This is the model, rightly or wrongly, for people who trespass at the School of the Americas or refuse to pay the portion of taxes that go to defense. This is the model, rightly or wrongly, for faithful people who nonetheless feel they must speak out for women’s ordination or against the process by which the new liturgical translations were crafted. This is the model, rightly or wrongly, for those who actively work to reduce and ultimately end abortion, as well as for those who work to make Church structures more transparent and abuse-free.
In other words, it is possible in conscience for believers who have carefully studied and appropriated the law to conclude that a certain aspect of it is unjust and needs to be challenged or changed, even when there is disagreement on which politicians or political processes are more likely to achieve the desired goal, and on which actions, writings, or affiliations within the Church could more effectively convey the message. In trying to work for the common good and the advancement of the Gospel, they feel called by God to dissent, push back, or even violate laws they feel are unjust.
Are these law-breakers always right? Of course not. Most of those within the Church, though, are doing their best to follow the commands of God and the teachings of Jesus, and they are working for both a more just world and a more faithful Church.
It is comforting to note that even in this most strident pro-law passage, Jesus remains inclusive. Note that he does not exclude law-breakers from the Kingdom. He says they are "the least" in the kingdom, but they are still there. Perhaps those acting in light of faith, those acting in pursuit of the love of God and neighbor that Jesus holds highest, even if they make mistakes, are still members of the Kingdom of God and heirs to the promise. Perhaps, too, we humans would be well advised to be both more careful of the demands of the law and more open to those who follow a prophetic path of challenging it.
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.amyflorian.com/.