Following commandments and rules seems to be the uniting theme in today’s three readings. First Moses tells the Israelites that observing statutes and decrees is a necessary condition for them to live in the land of the Lord. The Psalmist reminds the people how special they are, because the Lord took the trouble to proclaim His statutes and ordinances to them, rules that were not made known to other people. And Jesus teaches the disciples that He had come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that obedience to the commandments will help someone become the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
The commandments that Moses shared with his people were the “thou shalt not” kind – don’t do this, you can’t do that, be careful of doing this. Entering into a compact with the Lord meant that you would obey these commands, and repent when you did not, so you could renew the covenant and return to a place of harmony with God’s wishes. Following the commands meant a person could live in the promised land (or heaven) because she or he had found favor with God by following the rules that God had proscribed.
Recall that when pressed by the Pharisees to specify which of the commandments Moses had received was the greatest, Jesus stated that love of God, and love of neighbor as one loves self, was the basis of the whole law (Mt. 22:34-40). And in today’s excerpt from Matthew, in the next verse (20), Jesus suggests that unless our holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, we won’t enter heaven.
What to make of this? Following rules scrupulously (religiously?), and exalting rules to be the essence of spirituality, was the path the scribes and Pharisees took – Jesus rejected that approach. Arguing that following rules is the same as holiness was a trap that the scribes and Pharisees fell into – Jesus avoided that trap. Jesus suggests that holiness is wholiness – that is, love of God and love of God’s creation in harmony with God’s intentions, surrendering one’s self wholly to God.
And so, rules and commandments are reminders that we can get out of balance with the wholeness around us if we don’t live in thoughtful adherence to God’s plan. We can and do misuse God’s gifts to us of our uniqueness, of our shared humanity and of our physical environment. We sin by failing to remember to put God first, by not being wholly in harmony with God’s plan. For me, the “thou shalt nots” and other statutes and decrees are reminders of ways that I might fall short of the great restatement of the commandments that Jesus presents – to love God with my whole heart, and love my neighbor as myself. If I can love God with my whole heart, I will be in harmony with God’s plan for this world; I will be at peace with my fellow humans. How can I possibly be violating a “thou shalt not” if I am living as Jesus calls me to live?
And so my prayer today is to concentrate on my relationship with God, with the wholeness of my love for God and God’s creation, to challenge where I have become out of balance with God’s intentions and the way I live my life, and to find one way that I can repent by moving closer to God’s call to me.
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