Blessed are they who choose to follow the law of the Lord (Psalm 119:1).
As I was crossing the border between Kenya and Uganda on the way to Sudan with a friend, the border official asked for our address. My friend immediately replied, “Box 10, Nimule, Sudan.” The official wrote it down, and I kept my mouth shut while my eyes bugged out.
There wasn’t a post office in Nimule, let alone a post office box. Wasn’t this a lie? Doesn’t the ninth commandment say, “Don’t lie”? Aren’t details important? Why not just tell him the truth? Today’s Gospel says that whoever breaks one of these commandments will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Later when I chided my friend about giving a nonexistent address, he shrugged his shoulders. “They just need to fill in the blank,” he replied.
Today’s first reading, Sirach 15:15-20, makes clear that it is our choice whether or not we follow the commandments. If we so choose, the commandments will save us and we will live.
I was visiting the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome many years ago with a Maryknoll priest, and during the Mass, an Italian lay man gave the homily. Only a few weeks earlier, the pope had announced that lay people could not give homilies. My priest friend asked the other Maryknoll priests in Rome how this could happen given the recent papal announcement. One of them chuckled and said, “This is Rome.There is the law, and there is life.”
There we were, right in Vatican City, and it looked like the pope’s order was being flagrantly violated. But laws and legal systems change over time. It also takes time to change. Jesus himself said he came to fulfill the law. That suggests an interpretive process, movement and change.
I was crossing another border from Sudan into Uganda on my way to a hospital. I was sick with dysentery, and the police were shocked as I dragged myself into their office and asked to use their latrine. They quickly pointed me in the right direction and hastily wrote out permission for us to enter with our vehicle, encouraging us to go quickly and wishing us a safe journey. Police at border crossings in East Africa are better known for intimidation and their demands for extra cash rather than kindness. They didn’t ask for my passport, check the car or any number of other details the law required.
The commandments are guidelines written in black and white and can only give parameters to the spectrum of gray along which life is lived. Jesus fleshes out some of the commandments and other laws in today’s gospel, Matthew 5:17-37. He says that killing can begin with anger and refusal to reconcile. Adultery can encompass lust and disrespect. Rather than making false oaths, he calls us to be straight-forward and clear about what we want to say.
The Gospel last week came from this same passage in Matthew and told us to be salt and light for the earth. How do we do that? We are called to let our righteousness surpass the letter of the law of the scribes and Pharisees. Let the Spirit, “which scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God,” illuminate those parameters and grey areas that reveal themselves in the day-to-day living of our lives.
In a nutshell, love determines the essence of the law. That police officer who chose to care about my welfare, expedite my border crossing and wish me well was following a higher law.
Blessed are they who choose to follow the law of Love.
Scripture reflection for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Feb. 16, 2020.
Photo by Sean Sprague.