“Is it against the law on the sabbath to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to destroy it?” Not only is the answer obvious, but it must also be clear and decisive. By telling the man with the withered hand to “’Stand up! Come out into the middle”, Jesus is asking His audience and all of us to be clear about our stand; “Is it against the law on the sabbath to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to destroy it?”
Do laws save or destroy life? In other words, does the observance of laws empower human life, or does it rob us of our dignity, freedom and capacity to love? Of course, laws are meant for the good of all, and to protect lives. They are necessary for harmonious living and for the proper exercise of freedom. Every institution, regardless of whether it is a social or religious institution, needs to have laws to govern community life.
Indeed, the laws must serve the good of man and empower life, not rob man of life and love. So the solution with regard to the balance between the observance of the laws and the rule of love is to know the intent and spirit of the laws. In asking the question if it is against the law to do good on the Sabbath, Jesus was asking whether they knew the intention of the law of Sabbath. If the scribes and Pharisees had understood the real purpose of the Sabbath law, then they would have gone beyond legalism. For the objective of the Sabbath law is to ensure that man recognizes that everything comes from God, and that he is called to protect his health by resting on the Sabbath and at the same time, to use that rest for the service of love and compassion.
Yet, there is always the danger of falling into legalism, just as the scribes and Pharisees did. When that happens, life is destroyed. For those who can observe the laws, they become proud of their achievements and despise those who are unable to. If such observances are concerned with the religious laws instead of exalting God, the consequence is that we end up exalting ourselves. We boast, not of the grace of God at work, but of how diligent we are. We tend to focus on ourselves and our strength.
Having exalted ourselves, we become fault-finding because we tend to compare others with ourselves. We make ourselves the benchmark for holiness. Wasn’t this exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were doing? They were “watching him to see if he would cure a man on the Sabbath, hoping to find something against him”. Some of us are so obsessed with the right observation of the rubrics and rituals that our focus, like the scribes and Pharisees, is not so much on the experience of the worship during Mass, but in wait to witness the priest or one of the ministers flout the liturgical law, either consciously or unconsciously. If that is the case, we will never be able to get the most out of the worship experience.
This is not to say that the observation of the rubrics of the Mass is not important. Indeed, some quarters of the Church are not happy with the New Mass Rite. They question the wisdom and effectiveness of the changes in the translation made in the English version of the Order of the Mass and the Sacramentary. Yet it is necessary for us to observe the Revised Mass Texts, not blindly but intelligently, seeking to understand the meaning and the spirit of the Church in desiring to have a more precise translation, one that will not lose its original meaning, theological and liturgical, as in the Latin text. This is where the religious leaders during the time of Jesus failed. They were more concerned with the observance of the laws rather than applying the laws intelligently in specific and practical situations where, ironically, to keep the laws, one might have to break them sometimes.
But the non-observation of the laws can also occur if we do not understand the original intent of the laws and as a result, fall into self-condemnation, and perhaps even despair. A person who tries to obey the commandments but fails again and again will, after some time, give up all hope and be resigned to his sinful situation. And since he is unable to observe the laws perfectly, the conclusion is that he might as well break all of them. Naturally, this way of thinking of the common man is not what the Church teaches. The Church does not expect us to be perfect overnight. We must be compassionate with ourselves. Sometimes, just because we fail in our responsibilities or in keeping the high dignity of our office, we want to resign or abdicate our position. More often than not, we give up trying because we think that just because we cannot reach the mark, then we should just not only stay where we are but allow ourselves to rot further. Those who are impatient with their own growth and are unable to accept their human frailties will only condemn themselves.
Even St Paul urges us to be patient in our spiritual life and spiritual growth. He wrote, “Yes, I want you to know that I do struggle hard for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for so many others who have never seen me face to face. It is all to bind you together in love and to stir your minds, so that your understanding may come to full development, until you really know God’s secret in which all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.” Truly, growing up physically or spiritually takes time, often a whole life time. God is more patient and merciful with us than we with ourselves.
Others become over scrupulous and they live in constant guilt and fear. They find no peace for every trivia that worries them. They are so meticulous and careful in making themselves perfect that they are paralyzed by fear. They become so prudish that they take out every fun from life. Such people take themselves too seriously. They want to live an impeccable life so that they can be honoured by man’s praises and be confident to claim from God the reward of eternal life for all the sacrifices they have made. But such people are nervous wrecks and cause others around them to be nervous as well. Such a robotic life is neither human nor holy!
There is also the danger of falling into minimalism. Laws make us complacent because we measure ourselves against the laws. Yet laws are precisely instituted for those who are lazy and mediocre. If we never go beyond the laws, it is a sign that we are minimalists and living in false security, thinking that we can justify ourselves before God and before man. Minimalists are those who are being driven not by passion for anything in life, but simply to escape punishment. Such people are lukewarm, neither dead nor alive, neither passionate nor dead, neither here or there. They look more like zombies living the state of Sheol, of non-existence on earth.
In contrast, we have Jesus who showed He was ruled by love and compassion for the needy. Isn’t this the reason for St Paul’s motivation in suffering for the Church? He wrote, “It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. I became the servant of the Church when God made me responsible for delivering God’s message to you, the message which was a mystery hidden for generations and centuries and has now been revealed to his saints.” Love goes beyond the laws. Love has no end or limits. For love knows no rest since love is dynamic. Love conquers fear that comes from the laws. Love would require us to break the laws at times in order to preserve the laws! The irony is that the only way to keep the spirit of the law at times is to break the law as an exception, because of the change in circumstances. By observing the laws rigidly when the situation has changed is actually breaking the spirit of the law. Indeed, we must never forget that laws are means and not ends in themselves.
The sad truth is that when we are ruled by laws, we have lost our focus. Instead of focusing on the person and how the law can help him, we are more concerned about protecting the laws. Then the consequence is that the laws, which are supposedly man’s friend, become his enemy. Laws, instead of promoting life, become destructive to man. Such was the case of the Pharisees in today’s gospel. So low did they reduce themselves, that they would even make use of a suffering man to kill Jesus! They had lost their focus totally.
Today, St Paul gives us the example of what it means to be ruled by love and not by laws. He speaks of his suffering for the Church because of his love for Christ and the Church. Indeed, the only authority ultimately, is that of love. St Paul appealed to his suffering and love for the Church as the basis for his authority to write to them. For love, God has “broken” His laws to save Paul from his ignorance and self-righteousness. It is not laws that will save us, but God’s grace. That is why St Paul says, “The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory: this is the Christ we proclaim, this is the wisdom in which we thoroughly train everyone and instruct everyone, to make them all perfect in Christ. It is for this I struggle wearily on, helped only by his power driving me irresistibly”.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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