Keeping the Law in one’s heart

It has often occurred to me that, as we continue to grow in age and hopefully in wisdom, there is also the accompanying expectation that we should be able to draw on all this accumulated insight, intuition and understanding. Having already passed into my 90’s, I dare to speak from experience. As I observe the course of human history, I am often astonished to observe the number of human insights many individuals have shared with the human race in such fields as philosophy, theology, science, art, architecture, spirituality, poetry, wonderment, thoughtful expression and many others. Without a doubt humanity has reached a point where one begins to wonder whether there is anything more in our nature that can astonish us.

Not only that, as human persons we have certain natural instincts that make it possible for us to live together peacefully: we have the ability to be compassionate, sensitive, kindly, considerate and sympathetic toward one another. Ideally at least, that is the way we are.

Nonetheless, it has also become obvious over the course of human history that individuals and the human community at large are also capable of doing what is contrary to our own best instincts. We often treat one another with great cruelty; indeed, history is the best proof of how we have brought great destruction upon on one another and on the very planet itself, our only home. Have we then incurred some basic flaw or frailty, an original attraction that draws us aside from the path of goodness?

Since Adam and Eve we have lived with a great human contradiction. Is there anything therefore that can counter what seems to be our worst instincts?

The answer seems rather clear: by necessity, it seems, we have law or a system of laws that help us live peacefully with one another.

Law, therefore, is the issue that the Sacred Scriptures explore on this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Jewish wisdom scribes, such as Sirach in today’s first reading, often speak of life as a continuing opportunity to make choices: If you choose you can keep the commandments. Before us lie life and death; whichever we choose will be given us.

Jesus, in turn, insists that unless our holiness surpasses the basic Ten Commandments, the kingdom of God will only be a distant hope. Keeping God’s law in a deeper sense means going beyond the basics, the expected and the obvious. Anyone can keep a law out of obedience or fear but only the free person — the truly liberated person — can discover its true meaning.

Speaking for myself and perhaps also for other Christians as well, it would seem that we often fall back on the ancient practice of keeping the law for law’s sake, managing to stay on the safe side without ever discovering how the keeping of it can become an act of human freedom, freedom for rather than freedom from. Jesus never suggested that the rule of the heart would be simple or undemanding. On the other hand, imagine the pure joy one can experience when we come to a place where keeping the law comes naturally — when the heart rules supreme.

Feb. 12 Scriptures

Sirach 15: 15-20

1 Corinthians 2: 6-10

Matthew 5: 17-37

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.

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