Living the Spirit of the Law
Today’s Gospel addresses probably the biggest fight in Christianity outside of faith vs works. In fact, it may be based in the fight between faith and works. Let us look at what happens.
Notice the rich man, he lives the law to the letter. He makes sure that he lives the decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Jesus acknowledges this but then tells him to go the extra mile and sell all he has and give to the poor. This leads him to grow quite sad and to walk away.
Here this homily as it was delivered:
He is doing his part in his own mind, but what is missing? He is following God’s law but Jesus is calling him to give himself totally over to God and trust in him completely. He is living his faith on his terms now Jesus is calling him to live his faith on God’s terms, which by the way is what Jesus does.
What is going on here? You are witnessing the difference between living the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. This is a huge battle in Catholicism. You can hear it everywhere from discussion of Catholic teaching out of the Vatican and the USCCB to what comes out of Catholic media.
The battle is between what the law says to what the law means. It is between following the rules of Christ’s Church to following Christ Himself. If you do the latter you will live at a higher standard than the former.
Always remember the rules are the minimum standard of Catholic life. If you live the rules and do not disregard them, you will do what the rich man does. You will live what the rules say but you will do so and never know God on a personal level or even have an intimate relationship with him. You sum up your faith in following the rules. This is faith but it is an immature faith. In fact, notice the rich man says he has followed the commandments since he was a child. Therefore, even a child can follow them. Our faith matures when we seek to go deeper beyond the rules. This is what adults do.
Jesus is constantly fighting this battle. He is calling people as he does the rich man to live the spirit of the law and his enemies are living the letter of the law. This is why he heals in the Temple on the Sabbath. He is challenging the rules with the spirit behind them. He is doing the work of love in a world that follows rules.
The letter of the law is rooted in following rules, the spirit of the law is rooted in listening to Christ in our own lives and hearing his call and responding to it. We learn the Gospel by living a life of good prayer and seeking to do Christ’s will. This is why Catholicism without prayer leads to bad headlines.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church inspires us to pursue contemplative prayer which is the deepest and transformative form of prayer. If there is one thing we need in this Church today it is more laypeople who practice contemplative prayer. It is the prayer that really enters into a daily disciplined relationship with Christ.
Living by the rules leads us to live our faith on a superficial level and living by the Spirit leads us to live our faith on a profound and deep level. We will live the rules as the spirit behind them not the letter behind them.
This is the fight we have as Catholics between those who cite the laws and those who seek to live to a higher standard. How does one live at this deeper level. Listen to the words of St. Augustine: “In all things charity.” You cannot live charity in all things if you are not in communion with the embodiment of charity through prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this prayer does not have its origin in our effort but in the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.
St. Augustine also says: Love and do what you want.” What that really means is have a fruitful prayer life and do the loving thing more than what is simply legal. Our goal is to do what is pleasing to God not to follow his rules and this is something that the rich man did not understand.
It is one thing to Keep Holy the Sabbath, it is another to sacrifice out of your own good for another in the name of your service to Christ.
It is one thing to go to Church on Sunday, it is another not to retaliate against someone who has hurt you intensely following Church teaching and Romans 12
It is one thing to legally cross the street on a crosswalk, it is another to speak to a homeless person as Christ would speak to him or her.
It is one thing to pray every day, it is another to engage in contemplative prayer and to put that prayer into action.
This is what Jesus is getting at with the rich young man. It is laudable that he faithfully follows the law, now he has an invitation to put the law into action at a deeper level. This is something that the pharisees never do. In fact, they manipulate the law to their advantage. If you act in love, you will not be so manipulative.
We have the same rule issues here as well.
We have the members of our Church nationally from some bishops through to the laity who will scream about one law or another but live their faith in a way that deters anyone from believing it.
It is not that they are uncharitable it is they do not see the sin in their lack of charity. They may even be doctrinally right but they have no concept of charity.
Here is a question for you? You heard the headlines about social media and the statements against one of those companies can you be a person of love and use certain forms of social media today now that we know what we know?
You realize when you are dealing with people who are at each other’s throats the winner in the battle is the one who provides the venue where the fight happens. So, who is winning in the daily interpersonal battles on social media? Social media billionaires.
One thing I notice in some Catholic media venues and I am not referring to those rooted in the Archdiocese of Boston, they will explain not how truly to live your faith but rather how everyone who disagrees with them is wrong. None of this will lead you to deepen your faith.
I was praying the other day as I always do and in my prayer I realized that when God says that his ways are above our ways, it is not that we cannot always understand why God does things it is that we have to realize that we do not have a good understanding of the mind of God, so we must be in the learning mode all the time. It is better for us to say: I do not fully understand and pray for the wisdom to know the truth than to say this is what the rule says so you have to follow it. We follow the rule in obedience until we truly understand the wisdom behind it and then we follow it in truth.
The rich man could not understand this, we assume he continued to follow the commandments as he did since he was a child.
Socrates taught that the wise person knows that he does not know. So he or she becomes a blank slate to learn. When we really commit to prayer especially contemplative prayer we learn new things that allow us to put into action the spirit of the law and not just the law.
There are many people who act in our church as if they alone have the right answer as they stand on the law. The law helps us to understand where the road of truth is. We learn through the spirit of the law how to drive on that road. Without the law, we follow the road without any instruction and that is a car wreck waiting to happen. That is the source of so many negative headlines in the Church. It is the fruit of people who knew the letter of the law but never went deeper into the spirit of the law. Those people are train wrecks waiting to happen.
Let us pray this week that we seek to learn more deeply how to live the spirit of the law more powerfully, those who do so become true revolutionaries in Christ something the Church and the world need profoundly.