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Bible Reflections View Comments

The Laws that Give Life
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, February 16, 2014
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Jesus has hard words for us in the Gospel. Part of his Sermon on the Mount, this passage is where he seems to be letting the vast crowd following him know that while he brings a message of life—and eternal life—it’s not without a price.

Most of us have heard the Sermon on the Mount often enough that we can quote from it smoothly and naturally— or at least recognize quotes from it. Living its precepts might not come quite as easily. So it might be good to look at the reading from Sirach that the Church has chosen to pair with this Gospel.

The wise teacher tells his listeners, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God. you too shall live.” We don’t often think of the ten commandments as something we choose to follow or not. Just as they are famously stated for the most part in a “You shall not” formula, we think most often in terms of breaking them—intentionally or unintentionally.

The reading from Sirach reminds us that in nearly everything we do, we have a choice. Whether we take action or not, we make a choice. And, in fact, as a friend often reminds me when I’m struggling with a course of action, “Not to decide is to decide.”

We think of the ten commandments, the law of Moses, the Torah, as an impossibly high standard. But when we break it down, we discover that it’s simply essential to life in community. The impossibility comes through our desire to follow our own whims instead of God’s will. We imagine that somehow we would be happier without any laws, without any rules.

We have heard the many passages in the Gospels when Jesus spars with the scribes and the Pharisees over human additions to the law of Moses, rules and regulations that seem both petty and impossible to follow exactly. It must have been tempting for Jesus’s first followers to make the leap to complete lawlessness. We know from Paul’s letters that some of the early Christians did indeed fall into this trap. If only the things of the spirit mattered, then they could indulge their bodily desires all they wanted.

Jesus tells the people, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The reason people found it difficult to follow the law, and the reason the scribes and Pharisees felt compelled to add extra rules to make sure that people didn’t break the big rules, was because they weren’t seeing to the heart of the law: the covenant relationship with God.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is trying to lead people to a deeper understanding of the central commandments of their faith. He hopes to show them that it’s not a question of doing the bare minimum to stay on God’s good side. Rather, as Christians we are called enter so deeply into our relationship with God that we will treat all people with the care and respect due to them as our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we do that, following the commandments will simply be second nature.

Like Moses and the prophets, Jesus shows us that keeping God’s law is not a matter of following the rules as much as it is a matter of life and death. How can we help but choose life?


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Philip Neri: Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise. 
<p>At an early age, he abandoned the chance to become a businessman, moved to Rome from Florence and devoted his life and individuality to God. After three years of philosophy and theology studies, he gave up any thought of ordination. The next 13 years were spent in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and the apostolate. </p><p>As the Council of Trent (1545-63) was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality. Initially they met as an informal prayer and discussion group, and also served poor people in Rome. </p><p>At the urging of his confessor, he was ordained a priest and soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke. He arranged talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents in a room above the church. He sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way. </p><p>Some of his followers became priests and lived together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services. </p><p>The Oratory was finally approved after suffering through a period of accusations of being an assembly of heretics, where laypersons preached and sang vernacular hymns! (Cardinal Newman founded the first English-speaking house of the Oratory three centuries later.) </p><p>Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself. His characteristic virtues were humility and gaiety.</p> American Catholic Blog We need do no more than we are doing at present; that is, to love divine Providence and abandon ourselves in his arms and heart.<br />—St. Padre Pio

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