St Etheldreda's

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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Love and law

Posted September 5, 2020

23rd Sunday of the Year (Yr A)

Today’s Reading from Romans (13: 8-10) is about the relationship between love and law.  Not civil law, like having to pay tax or not parking on double yellow lines, but moral and religious law – the ‘Thou shalt’, ‘Thou shalt not’ kind of law.  How is love related to law in that sense?  St Paul says that whoever loves their neighbour has fulfilled the law.  Does this mean that the excellent Sisters who taught me in primary school wasted six years of their lives making me learn by heart ‘Thou shalt not steal’, and ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’, when they should have told me to love my neighbour and be done with it?  Are the Ten Commandments obsolete?

Yes, I think they are.  Not in the sense that it is now OK to covet your neighbour’s ox or your neighbour’s BMW; but in the sense that the Christian, following the instinct of the Holy Spirit, now spontaneously recoils from all such things, just as we all recoil from injury to our bodies.

The centuries have taught us, however,  that most of us Christians do have need of commandments urged upon us by an external authority.  The Church has traditionally taken this view.  But it is a question of balance.  On the one hand: If, as St Paul says, love rejoices in the truth, love will surely do its utmost to seek out the truth and embrace it.  But moral truth can be complex in itself, and even to consider it in the first place one sometimes needs to be familiar with areas of factual knowledge that may be beyond most of us.  Hence the need for  experts in moral theology, and for a magisterium that teaches with authority; and for specific dos and don’ts.   It would be a naïve kind of love that thought it could disregard specific ‘commandments’.  Love goes beyond such commandments, certainly; but it does not go around them.

On the other hand, precisely because it is a question of balance, it is important to understand that the commandments and the Church’s law cannot be an end in themselves.  Law cannot produce love.  You cannot distil love from  commandments any more than the honey-bee can suck honey from the hollow wax structure of the honeycomb.   ‘The letter kills’, as St Paul puts it: ‘it is the Spirit that gives life.’

Are we aware, I wonder, of the danger of living our religion on the principle, ‘the Church says so’, or ‘the commandments say so’?  We often understand sin as transgressing a law rather than as going against our nature and impeding our growth as persons.  We are restrained by the fear of the judge rather than liberated by the invitation of the lover.  I wonder how many Catholics come to Mass on Sundays because the Church has made it an obligation, rather than because they know in their hearts that the Eucharist is the fountain of life and love.  Do you refrain from bearing false witness because the commandment prohibits it, or from an inner  conviction that only the truth will set you free?  Is it just the commandment ‘Thou shalt not …’ that stands between you and infidelity in marriage?

God promised the prophet Jeremiah that the new covenant that he would make with his people would not be like the covenant at Sinai, with its commandments imposed on them from outside.  Rather, ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.’

This law written on our hearts, the prophet Ezekiel later explained, is God’s own Spirit living and loving in us.

In this Eucharist, this re-enactment of the new and eternal covenant, may God write his law upon our hearts.  May he put his Spirit within us.  May he unite us so closely to Jesus that we embrace all that is good and true and beautiful with the eagerness and passion of Jesus himself.

Fr Tom Deidun

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