One of the many ways to enter the richness of the Scripture presented in today’s Ordinary-Time liturgy is to consider the seeming purposes of God for laws or commands. Another entry point that invites pondering is the role of ritual and memory for long term relationships.
The first reading from Exodus describes both the liberation of the Israelites from the reign of the false god, Pharoah, and the command of God that the Israelites remember their liberation specifically in a ritual meal context (even the menu is provided by law) that enables those who engage in the meal and know the story of liberation to remember it in such a way as to enter the original event and its saving context. With any law or ritual comes the risk, however, that the purpose of the remembering will be forgotten or the original salvation will be forgotten and it becomes “empty ritual” or law for its own sake rather than as a means of formation and liberation.
The Gospel reading from Matthew about the disciples eating the grain on the sabbath shows how the law becomes treated as an end in itself, and is used to imprison or condemn rather than liberate. Because the guardians of the law are usually the people with some authority or power (and often a great deal of responsibility to uphold and protect the law) they can come across to us as nit-picking and controlling – which, to be fair, is clearly the way Matthew seems to intend to portray the Pharisees in this passage. But without any law of remembrance and loving respect for the rituals of God, the critical message of salvation is lost.
So the trap seems to be being caught between corrupting the law by making it an end in itself to control others, or neglecting it altogether which deprives us and other humans of communities of the means of remembrance of God’s saving work. How do we remain focused on law or command as GIFT of God’s self-disclosure about his love and liberation? Human reason plays a part; certainly the desire to share God’s freedom rather than oppression does as well; God’s grace which stirs our minds and hearts to remembrance of the purpose of the law in the first place, prayerful consideration of law as means not end, all contribute to enabling us to have a reasonable respect – even LOVE for – the “commands” or word of God that liberate us, without making these media of God’s love into false gods by idolizing them.
This is a constant human struggle, but one that God will enable us to keep balanced in as long as we stay in real touch with God and not just with God’s laws that are now reified in symbolic form (word) or ritual action. These forms can only stay alive and bear their message if we remember that they are NOT the fullness of God’s self – even when they are the closest communications of God’s self that we can hold on to. This isn’t just for Pharisees to think about, I as a Christian, and others that I know who share my faith in Jesus, are capable of forgetting that he allowed his disciples to break the Law when it was necessary and reasonable. But Jesus also said that he did not come to change one iota of the law – so we live in that tension between respect for the means of remembering God’s mercy, without attempting to co-opt that means for our own power and control.
The Psalm reminds us that the cup of salvation is another of those signs of God’s compassion, so today is a good day to “take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.”
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