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The Spirit of the Law

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr David McLean preaches on the purpose of the Law of Moses.

Most people are turned off by legalism. Laws, rules, and regulations can bog us down. They can curtail our freedom. There are times when we want to do something, and can't see any wrong in doing it, but we are told that it is against a regulation, a rule, or a law. It is attractive to think that we can do away with a lot of laws and legalism.

If we use our imagination, however, it is difficult to see how a society or organisation could work without any rules. People would drive along whatever side of the motorway took their fancy. There would be no such thing as property, and so there would be no such thing as theft -- you could simply take what you liked. You may have a personal moral code to live by, but you would have no recourse against someone who lived by a different code.

A balance has to be found. We need some rules in order to build some kind of society. The right amount of law should make our life free and easier. A good balance of law should free us to exercise our rights, and to fulfil our obligations. A good system of law should enable us to live the good life.

Too much law, however, is stifling. We are then often not allowed our rights, and we can even be stopped from fulfilling our obligations. The spirit of the law should encourage us to claim our rights and fulfil our duties, but too many rules, or the wrong rules, can have the opposite effect.

Remembering the spirit behind a law system should discourage its misapplication or its over-application. A good legal system is one that can realise when a particular law or particular case contradicts the spirit behind the law, and repeals the law or throws out the particular case.

Jesus didn't always get on very well with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were great legalists. They not only obeyed every law handed down by Moses and the Torah; they also added lots of new ones. They laid down what you had to do in your religious life and your ordinary day to day life in great detail. Some may say that the Pharisees enforced the law at the expense of the spirit of the law.

In today's Gospel reading, the Pharisees say divorce is acceptable, because Moses allowed it. According to the Pharisees, because Moses said you can draw up a writ of dismissal and so divorce someone, divorce must be acceptable.

The Pharisees give no analysis as to why Moses said divorce by writ was permissible. The Pharisees base their view on a dry legal interpretation of Moses's statement. They do not consider the spirit behind what Moses said.

Moses was actually making divorce more difficult, by requiring a writ, than it was before when only a verbal statement was required. Before Moses, you could divorce by simply saying 'I divorce you' three times.

A great concern of the Torah was to protect the vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, and the traveller. The prophets criticised those who claimed to follow the letter of the Law, but in the end actually managed to avoid looking after the vulnerable, the very people much of the Torah is about protecting.

Moses wanted to make divorce more difficult to avoid leaving individuals without a means of support. The most likely victims were women who would have more difficulty making a living as single people. The spirit behind what Moses said was a concern to protect the vulnerable. The spirit behind Moses's permission is that divorce is a bad thing, that it would be better not to divorce at all.

Jesus reminds his audience that it is the spirit of the law that matters. Law should be about protecting the vulnerable and not making their situation worse. Laws, rules, and regulations should be about freeing us to be good people and not curtailing us. If laws enable us and encourage to be good people, then they fulfil God's law.



Genesis 2:18-24
Hebrews 2:9-11
Mark 10:2-16


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