Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Relaxing the commandments?

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In one of the Daily Office readings today from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus comments:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:18-19).

Jesus himself had been accused of relaxing the Law--rewriting the rule book where it suited him. His opponents were outraged when they caught him "working" on the Sabbath . . . by healing a man. Of course, when we look closely, we see that Jesus is not relaxing the demands of God's law at all; he is calling us back to its original purpose. "Remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," he said.

Indeed, if anything, Jesus strengthens the commandments every time he comments on some item in the Torah. In the same chapter (Matthew 5), Jesus does this in the case of anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and the treatment of your enemies. He takes the familiar approach, "You have heard that it was said . . . [the rule in the Torah], but I say unto you . . . [do even better]."

As a community of Christian disciples, we are continuously tempted to lower our standards and expectations--to relax the commandments--in an effort to be welcoming and loving. Even among the clergy, it is difficult to avoid the thinking, "Well you know they're just going to do it anyway, so we be more open about it."But we must resist the temptation, for it is not truly loving our neighbor; it is really soul-destroying. God does not call us to the lowest common denominator, nor does he want us to aim just to get by. He calls us to the highest standards. Because we fall short, it does not follow that we should lower our standards.

Grace perfects nature. Holiness is a pursuit. Let us take inspiration from one of the other selections from today's Office readings in which St Paul wrote:

"We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. . . . For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." (1 Thessalonians 2:2-4, 11-12).

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