“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."
There is a very strong inclination today to think of law as something oppressive. The rallying cry of our society is to “do your own thing,” “do what feels right to you,” or “be yourself.” “Freedom,” as we conceive of it, is our culture’s highest ideal.
And all of this cultural pressure — a kind of peer pressure, really — makes it very difficult for us to appreciate the role of law in the life of the Jewish people. The law was not only at the center of the life of the Jews; they cherished it. This Sunday, we will pray Psalm 119, which is the longest of the psalms at 176 (!) verses and praises God’s law from start to finish. Consider also these lines from Psalm 19:
“The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart.
The command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
The statutes of the LORD are true,
all of them just;
More desirable than gold,
than a hoard of purest gold,
Sweeter also than honey
or drippings from the comb.
By them your servant is warned;
obeying them brings much reward.
Who can detect trespasses?
Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins.
Also from arrogant ones restrain your servant;
let them never control me.
Then shall I be blameless,
innocent of grave sin.”
Here we have almost a kind of love poem about the law of God! There is much more that could be said about the importance of the law in the Old Testament and at the time of Jesus, but what is most important for us to consider is the question, “Why did the people love the law so much?”
On the flip side, we have to think about what sets people so clearly against the law of God and His Church today. It is interesting, and unfortunate, to see so many people asking the question … not exactly in this way, but I’ll put it in the terms of today’s Gospel, “Did Pope Francis come to abolish the law? To abolish Church teaching?”
The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.” Pope Francis comes to us as the Vicar of Christ, and Christ tells us in this Sunday’s Gospel that He has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. The pope is our “holy father,” our shepherd, and our leader. But even the pope is not the source of his own authority. His authority comes from Jesus Christ. And though he teaches the faith with his own tone and special points of emphasis, particularly the importance of mercy, Pope Francis has been very clear that he is the shepherd of the one Church of Jesus Christ.
Someone might object, however, that Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict, for that matter) says that religion is not only about a “set of rules” but first and foremost about an “encounter” with Christ. Of course, people can slip into thinking that rules are important for their own sake. But the possibility of slipping into the wrong way of thinking does not mean that the right way of thinking should be set aside.
“Did Pope Francis come to abolish the law? To abolish Church teaching?” The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.” Pope Francis comes to us as the Vicar of Christ, and Christ tells us in this Sunday’s Gospel that He has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. The pope is our “holy father,” our shepherd, and our leader. But even the pope is not the source of his own authority.
All of the laws of the Church, all of her moral teachings, both help us to encounter Christ and to live in union with Him once we’ve had that encounter. You can’t be a piano player just by banging away on the keys, and you can’t know Christ without following the law He has given us, a law shaped by faith, hope and love. And just like an experienced piano player no longer has to agonize over every rule as he plays, when we grow in holiness it becomes easier and easier — though it will never be easy all the time! — to follow God’s law.
This Sunday’s first reading and responsorial Psalm teach us that God’s law gives us life and saves us. It helps us to choose life and goodness, and to avoid injustice and sin. The law is an expression of God's wisdom, making the utterly mysterious known to us. In Sunday’s second reading, St. Paul tells us that we could never know the mystery of God’s wisdom by our own intelligence or power. We need the Holy Spirit. To have the Spirit is to know God, to see the wisdom of the way of life, the law, He offers us. And to have the Spirit of God is to be empowered to follow God’s plan, God’s law every day, so that we grow into a deeper and deeper relationship with Him.
This is why we need to study our Catholic faith, to learn what God asks of us. This is why we need to work hard at doing good and avoiding evil, in every area of our lives. It’s not just about following rules for the sake of rules. It’s about the difference between life and death, between knowing God, so that we can love God, or remaining in the darkness of ignorance and sin. It is about what it means to have true freedom, not to do whatever we want, but to do what will give us true life.
If you don’t know your faith as well as you should — and that category probably fits for all of us — it’s time to learn more. There are more resources today, and they are more easily available, than at any time in history. You can read the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, attend educational events offered at your parish, or take a look at some of the countless good resources available on the internet. (It might take a bit of research to figure out which resources on the internet would be the most helpful, but you could certainly start with the parish, Archdiocese of Detroit, and Vatican websites.)
This Sunday, as you approach the altar to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood, recommit yourself to Him. Tell Jesus you love Him, that you want to live for Him, and that you will take the time to learn what that really means.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.