The Importance of the Spirit of the Law

All of us are subject to laws.  Jesus himself was subject to both human and divine law.  As he grew up he obeyed Mary and Joseph.   Jesus obeyed the law of the land and he obeyed God’s law.  This is where it is important for us to understand Jesus’ attitude towards divine law.

Jesus found no fault with the law itself.  His problem lay with the way it was interpreted and applied by the religious leaders of his day.  For them it was the letter of the law that mattered.  Once you fulfilled that you were okay with God, in their eyes.  But for Jesus it was the spirit of the law that mattered.  The important thing is not how many commandments we obey, but the spirit in which we obey them. 

The Pharisees looked only at the outward act.  But God sees what lies within the human heart.  Jesus tells us that we have to look not just at our acts, but at our thoughts and desires, even though they may never actually lead to acts.  We may never have physically killed someone, but we may have entertained hostile thoughts about them and harbored hostile attitudes towards them.  We may never have committed adultery, but we may have entertained lustful thoughts and desires about another person.

Jesus saw that the commandments were interpreted in a very negative way which led to minimalism, that being, doing the bare minimum.  Jesus shows us the positive side of living the commandments.  For example, the Fifth Commandment states, “Thou shalt not kill.”  Jesus tells us we must love our neighbor.  We can kill a person’s spirit which is a violation of the commandment, whereas love has the power to change a person.  The Seventh Commandment is, “Thou shalt not steal.”  Jesus tells us that we are to share what we have with our neighbor who is in need.  What we have is not out own but pure gift from a loving God.  To without sharing with someone in need is stealing.

Jesus was also aware of the reality that obedience can be rooted in fear.  He wanted it rooted in love.  When you love someone, you avoid doing anything to hurt that person.  Jesus did not come to abolish the old law but to breathe new life into it, so that the law would be a life-giving reality.  That is why he said that the commandments can all be summed up in two: Love of God and love of neighbor.  

As St. John of the Cross said, “In the evening of life we will be judged on only one thing; how much have we loved.”

– Fr. Dennis, February 12, 2017