22 March 2006: Wednesday of the 3rd Week of Lent
Matthew 5, 17-19: The Law
Lifestyle Channel promotes a going back to the basics. This is precisely what the Gospel asks of us today. Jesus makes a surprising statement at His sermon on the mount: “I have come not to abolish [the law] but to fulfill it. Therefore, whoever breaks one of these least commandments and teaches others to do so, will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is indeed surprising because we all know that Jesus was crucified because He broke the law. He did not follow the rules on handwashing, healed people on the Sabbath. His disciples did not fast when it was required. And yet Jesus in the Gospel speaks of the law with reverence and respect. Therefore this passage needs some clarification.
What law is He talking about? The Jews may refer to different types of laws: the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch, the law and the prophets (the whole of the Old Testament), and the oral or scribal law which are rules and regulations deduced from the Law. The scribes have put upon themselves the task of reducing the great principles to literally thousands of rules and regulations. For example, the Sabbath is holy (3rd Commandment). The scribal interpretation of keeping the Sabbath holy is to prohibit work during that day. How can we quantify work? Take a look at this items: food (weight of a dried fig), milk (enough for one to shallow), paper (2 letters only is allowed because to write is to work). The scribes therefore missed out on the great principle of the Law.
Jesus brought back the eternal character and meaning of the law. He did not come to abolish the Old Testament, but directed our attention to the basics. In the time of Jesus, the common understanding of the law was the scribal law. And Jesus referred them back to its primal value: the love of God and following His will, and the respect and love for people. Laws exist because it protects values which we all uphold.
Let me illustrate it with an example. Alexander L. Lacson has a small book, “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help Our Country.” The book lists following traffic rules as the first little thing. Why are we asked to follow traffic rules? Atty. Lacson says that it can save our lives on the road. It can bring us home alive and in one piece. It can save us from car repairs and the trouble we go through when we are pissed off with another driver who does not follow the rules. I know of one who, out of anger, shot another and was imprisoned for life. If we follow traffic rules, those who witness us, such as our children, will be led to think of basic values in life: right conduct, respect for people. By doing so, we form a culture of good manners and discipline, leading towards a better national identity as Filipinos.
But following traffic rules becomes meaningless unless we know why that rule has been there in the first place. Nation-building, national identity, discipline and safety as illustrated are the values behind that law.
In the season of Lent, we are asked to deepen our faith by re-thinking our laws and practices. What is the meaning behind the law of fasting and abstinence during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? On the Fridays of Lent, why can abstinence be substituted by acts of mercy? Why do we bless palms on Palm Sunday? What is the meaning behind all of our Lenten practices? Why do we go to mass on Sundays? Why are there holidays of obligations? What are the values protected by these rules and practices. By knowing the reasons behind these laws, our practice of the faith will become more meaningful and relevant to our lives. But more importantly, we go back to the real focus and center of our faith: Jesus. Paul affirms this when he writes, “Christ is the end of the Law” (Romans 10,4).