Many years ago, I worked as a substitute teacher in London, England – actually, I lasted precisely one day doing it. It was a terrible experience. I later learned that I had been placed at one of the rougher schools in the whole city. The children were not malicious; instead they were just indifferent to my presence – their attitude towards me was basically, “And who are you again?” While they went about doing whatever they wanted. At one point during the day, there was an all-school assembly. Here in the US, my experience with school assemblies was always pretty positive; usually they were supposed to be inspirational or even fun. But there, it was basically 20 minutes of the students being yelled at about what they were or were not supposed to be doing. I only remember one of the rules: “And don’t walk in the flowers, or gardener will be very cross!”
For our college students who have just gone through orientation at Grand Valley or are returning to campus, perhaps you were also given a series of instructions on what to do and what not to do on campus – hopefully in not such a negative way as at that school assembly in London. Like it or not, rules and laws are a part of life. They are a part of every society; from the very beginning, when humans first began to form themselves into tribes and social groups and such, in order to catch animals and protect themselves, there have been laws to be followed. They are necessary to bring some measure of order and stability to the chaos of life and for people to be able to live together. Every one of us has free will and has different ideas of what we want to do, what we want out of life, and so on, and often these ideas are in conflict with those held by other people. And hence all the rules and laws.
The problem is: who gets to make the rules? Who determines what is best for society in general, for all the many individuals and different kinds of people out there, especially when there is a wide range of opinion of what is best for society? All laws should be ordered towards some kind of good; but the problem, especially nowadays, is that there is no longer a real consensus on what is right and what is wrong. When the US was a more religious country in general, there was a much greater consensus on how to define right and wrong, and hence there was more social stability. But over the past 50 years or so, as the country has become less religious and more secular, that consensus has broken down. Things that were taken for granted about the human person until fairly recently, now seem to be up for debate. And in this age of Covid, new fault lines have emerged over what is right and wrong, over what we can do, what we should do, and so on.
As I said earlier, like it or not, there will always be rules and laws. Every nation, every society, every university, every organization has them. But ultimately, there is only one Law which must serve as the foundation for all other laws for them to be considered truly just. And that is of course the Law we hear about in our readings today, which is God’s Law. In our first reading, Moses exhorts the Israelites to follow the Law that God has given to them, and to neither add nor subtract from it. If they carefully observe God’s law, they will have a truly just society. I think it’s part of human nature – our fallen human nature that is – to kind of chafe against rules, if they go against our will. Children start to demonstrate this at a very early age. But God gave us His law not to dominate us or make us miserable, but for our own good – remember, all laws are at least in theory ordered to some kind of perceived good. And God knows better than all of us what is good, and what is for our own good. Following his commandments, while not always easy, brings about a more just society and leads to true human flourishing. Following laws that do not have their foundation in God’s law ultimately leads to human enslavement of one kind or another.
In our Gospel, Jesus does not criticize the scribes and the Pharisees for scrupulously following God’s law, but rather because they “disregard God’s commandment” in favor of rules that have been added to it over time. These rules were not bad in themselves – as Matthew tells us, they include things like washing their hands before eating, cleaning their cups and jugs and such – but the problem was that the scribes and the Pharisees had begun to focus on those exterior actions to the detriment of the Law that really mattered. Jesus is calling them “back from a fixation on external observance to a focus on the heart of the law, which is the proper ordering of the soul.” (Bersgma, The Word of the Lord: Sunday Mass Readings for Year Jesus is not saying that these exterior actions are harmful or meaningless; rather, he is trying to teach that what is most important is our interior disposition – the state of our soul. And he lists all the things that can come out of the human heart: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed…”, and so on.
Following God’s commandments, as difficult as it can be, as annoying as it can be, and as painful as it can be at times, is for the purpose of transforming our hearts, transforming our interior disposition, transforming our souls. God desires that we become more and more like Him – the One who is truly good and just. It is not an easy process, because it means saying no to ourselves. It means going against the human tendency to think that it is I – and only I – who determine the law, what is right and wrong, what is for my own good. But again, living this way doesn’t lead to freedom; it only leads to slavery to our own whims, passions, desires. And it leads to endless conflict with everyone else who believes that they are ones who determine the law.
Let us open our hearts to God’s Law – the only law that promises to give us true freedom, true happiness, and true peace.