February 16; 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year A

6th OT1 19 20Law vs Love

I’ve often heard this argument dragged out of the closet to justify any departure from Church laws or teachings, “We have to be pastoral.” By being “pastoral”, according to this antinomian reasoning, is to have the well-being of people as the paramount consideration. ‘What exactly can be considered the “well-being of people?” you may ask. Well, in today’s age, this has often been distilled into people’s personal feelings. So ultimately in this context, being pastoral means not offending anyone or making them feel rejected or unwelcomed. Being pastoral seems to make that it is alright to break every rule, disobey every instruction, or even ignore every doctrinal truth, as long as this keeps people happy.

But this attempt to pit pastoral practice against doctrine and church laws flies against Catholic teaching and Scripture itself. The division between theory and practice of faith is a false dichotomy, because it would mean a division in the mystery of the eternal Word of the Father, who became flesh. Fr Dominic nails it on the head when he tells me that whenever “pastoral reasons” are cited to justify an action, it is actually “pastor’s reasons.” The goal of bending the rules and ignoring doctrinal truths has little to do with the well-being of the people. Often, it betrays the pastor’s own insecurities of losing popularity with his people.

It has always been the teaching of Christianity that the pastoral mission of the Church is ordered to the ultimate end of man, for man’s salvation. In fact, you could say that Church’s doctrinal teachings and her disciplines and laws always have a profound pastoral dimension. Therefore the Latin maxim, salus animarum suprema lex – “the salvation of souls is the supreme law.” Salvation of souls hardly means well-being of persons or affirmation of their feelings. Thus, being pastoral actually means teaching and doing what would ultimately lead to the salvation of the soul. One does not become more “pastoral” by departing from doctrine or church laws. In fact, the word “pastoral” has its origin in the Latin term “pascere” which means “to feed”. Therefore, one becomes truly pastoral by feeding the flock with the life-giving teachings of Christ and His Church and help them abide by the Church’s laws and disciplines, because these provide a clear path to the verdant pastures of salvation. This is precisely what our Lord is saying in today’s gospel.

To those who argue that our Lord chose mercy over the law, that He chose pastoral care over doctrinal truths, that He came to overturn the laws of the old, would either have to be ignorant of the words of our Lord in today’s gospel or would choose to deliberately give them an entirely different spin that radically departs from their original meaning. The Lord says, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to complete them.” These words of the Lord can leave us in no doubt that His teaching, however radical to His contemporaries, was not intended to undermine the fundamental moral values enshrined in the Law. Jesus reinforced the commandments as absolute values rooted in the will of God. As such they were not subject to human accommodation. In His own words “not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the law until its purpose is achieved”.

If we are to understand this seemingly unbending stance on the part of the Lord, we must first consider what was meant when He said that He had come to bring the law to completion, that the law must stand until its purpose was achieved. A superficial and even adolescent caricature of the Law is that it was a rigid restraint limiting man’s freedom to grow and find fulfilment. The biblical understanding of the Law is quite different. The Law was God’s gift to His people. Man was destined to live in harmony with God and creation. Sin frustrated this destiny. The Law, as God’s gift to a sinful people, laid down the path whereby this end was to be achieved. Far from being a restraint upon man, the law was meant to free him of his selfishness and put him on the path to salvation. Sin, on the other hand, which is disobedience at its core - putting one’s own will above the will of the Creator, frustrates man’s destiny. It is in this sense that our Lord came not to abolish the law, but to bring it to completion. Communion with God can only come when we are in harmony with His will as revealed in the commandments.

Our Lord continued by demanding a virtue that goes deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. This is truly a remarkable statement, because in Jesus’ day those very Scribes and Pharisees were considered the most virtuous. Our Lord goes on to show, by means of a series of five “antitheses” (“You have learnt how it was said . . . but I say this to you”), that His life, and not of these hypocritical religious leaders, was the true fulfillment of the Law. In all these antithesis, our Lord seems virtually to replace the Old Covenant’s Law with a new law. But the new law is nothing other than what is revealed by the ultimate intent of the old law – perfection in imitation of God’s perfection. In doing so, our Lord actually raised the bar instead of lowering it, by inserting His own standard into the law. And what is this standard? “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That is the point of the commandments: whoever wishes to be in a relationship with God must match God’s behaviour and intent. It is God who sets the benchmark, not man. Strangely, the pastoral fallacy practiced by so many well-meaning Catholic leaders often moves in the opposite direction – setting the benchmark at the lowest common denominator - to the point of bottoming out.

If the world tells us that perfection is beyond our reach, our Lord shows us otherwise. Jesus, as the Way, the Truth and the Life, is the fulfilment of that Law. In Him, the purpose of the Law, in communion with God, is fully achieved. He will spend His entire life modeling its ultimate meaning for us, “until its purpose is achieved.” Finally, the Lord accomplishes this purpose by His Death and Resurrection. Thus, we are not being asked to do the impossible, as the first reading explicitly says: “if you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.” To do God’s will is nothing more than fidelity, to respond in gratitude to what God offers. As the Lord promises in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:11,14), “The command which I enjoin on you today does not exceed your capabilities, it is not unreachable … for my Word is very near you, it is in your heart.”

So, what is required of us is not a change to the rules or the perennial teachings of the Church – but rather the hearts of sinners - hearts of stone, hearts which refused to obey the commandments of God, had to be changed in order to become hearts of flesh, hearts willing to submit humbly to the laws of God.

The disciplines, laws and teachings of the Church are not meant to infringe our human freedom; nor are they an impossible and unrelenting burden. This is because these laws, these teachings are that of Christ. They reflect the Truth which Christ brought into the world for its salvation and it is this “Truth which will set you free” (Jn 8:32). No friendly pastoral initiative, no relaxation of laws, no re-spinning of doctrinal truths, can solve man’s ultimate problems. Only Jesus Christ in His fullness, undiluted by our ingenious “pastoral” accommodations, can alleviate the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. The World needs the Truth in its fullness. The World needs Christ, who is the “Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). What it doesn’t need is another ‘clever’ pastoral solution. What it doesn’t need is a counterfeit.