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Jesus and Bending the Law

January 15, 2018

In the Gospels we are reading this week at daily Mass we see Jesus coming into conflict with the religious authorities of His day, who accuse Him of violating the law.

  • In Monday’s reading Jesus is accused of not following the fasting rules observed by the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus rebuffs them by saying, in effect, that rejoicing with the Lord (the very giver of the law) is a weightier matter than the observance of fasting traditions (Mk 2:18ff).
  • In Tuesday’s reading Jesus is accused of permitting His disciples to violate Sabbath norms (by shelling grain as they walked along). The Lord rebuffs their argument by saying, in effect, that feeding the hungry is a weightier matter than observing a lesser Sabbath norm (Mk 2:23ff).
  • In Wednesday’s reading Jesus is once again accused of violating Sabbath laws by healing a man on the Sabbath. He rebuffs their claims by teaching that works of charity outweigh lesser Sabbath laws.

Perhaps a way of summarizing Jesus’ replies is in the old Latin expression Caritas suprema lex (Charity is the highest law). In other words, laws are meant to regulate our relationships with God and with others. The law is for something and someone, not merely against things.

Indeed, our relationship with God’s law is complex; often we don’t get it right. When it comes to God’s law we cannot forget that it is personal. That is, it is given to us by a loving God who wants to save us. Therefore, it is important to know both the law and the lawgiver, who is God.

In the Deuteronomic code, each law is often followed by this phrase: “I am the Lord.” It is as if the Lord is saying, “This is God talking, the God who saved you, the God who parted the Red Sea for you, the God who led you through the desert and into the Promised Land. I, the one who loves you, am telling you this.” The old rabbis put it this way: When God added to the law the phrase “I am the Lord,” He was saying, “Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me.”

So the law is personal and we must strive to know both the law and the lawgiver. Two errors are to be avoided when it comes to the law:

The first error that we can make is that of “legalism,” which elevates the law to the point of idolatry, such that one is kept “safe” by the law rather than by a saving relationship with God, the lawgiver. In such a system there is little room for understanding the Lord’s intent.

There is also a failure to grasp the often general nature of God’s law, which covers common circumstances but does not address every specific situation perfectly. For example, the obligation to attend Mass is usually binding, but illness or the need to care for the ill can be a valid excuse.

The second error we can make is at the other end of the spectrum: assuming a kind of carte blanche based on the claim that “God is love” and doesn’t really care if we follow the moral law. Never mind that God Himself gave us the moral law. Making this error, some claim that God doesn’t care if they skip Mass, live with their girlfriend, etc. He doesn’t care about that sort of thing because He is a loving God, affirming and merciful, a God who is not uptight the way the Church is. A person with such an attitude dismisses large parts of the moral law based on his own authority and the exaggerated notion that he knows what God wants better than even God’s very own revealed word. Such a person claims that a loving and kind God wouldn’t ask difficult things or rebuke sin. Such a notion confuses true love with mere kindness. While kindness is an aspect of love, so are challenge, rebuke, and even punishment.

Neither error will do. The key is to find a balance such that both the law and the lawgiver are properly respected.

As usual, St. Thomas Aquinas provides great insight. While the context of his remarks is the arena of civil law, the principles he sets forth are applicable to divine and ecclesial law as well. He takes up the question of law and the lawgiver in his Summa Theologica.

St. Thomas considers whether one who is under a law may act apart from the letter of the law.

He answers with a qualified yes and, as always, provides important distinctions and premises. He begins with a helpful quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers, who noted that the limits of written law are subject to the limits of all speech, including in its written form:

Hilary says (De Trin. iv): “The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it: because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things.” Therefore, we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than [merely] of his very words (Summa Theologica I, IIae, Q 96, art. 6, Sed contra).

St. Thomas goes on to note that laws are intended for the common good and speak to the general or common situations, but we must take into consideration that no lawgiver can envision every possible circumstance.

Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arises wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed (Ibid, respondeo).

St. Thomas presents the following example:

For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.

I’m sure we can all think of more modern examples such as breaking the speed limit to rush someone to the hospital, or jaywalking in order to help someone in trouble. Charity is the highest law and saving life is more important than observing laws that are merely cautionary.

St. Thomas next notes the important point that it is only in urgent cases that the law may be set aside without consultation with lawful authority:

Nevertheless, it must be noted, that if the observance of the law according to the letter does not involve any sudden risk needing instant remedy, it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful to the state: those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws.

If, however, the peril be so sudden as not to allow of the delay involved by referring the matter to authority, the mere necessity brings with it a dispensation, since necessity knows no law.

Thus urgency and necessity permit quick dispensations of the law, whereas ordinary situations require us to consult and defer to those to whom jurisprudence and legislation are consigned.

Again, St. Thomas is referring here to what is essentially civil law, but if these truths and distinctions apply to civil law with all its imperfections, how much more so to God’s law! If civil law ought not to be casually set aside without consultation and deference to proper authority, how much more so God’s law.

God has set forth a lawful authority in the Magisterium of the Church, to ponder His revealed law and teachings and to interpret them properly and authoritatively. He has also given the Church the power to bind and loose. What Thomas says regarding civil law (it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful … those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws) is also the case with respect to God’s law and Church law. No Catholic (except in urgent moments of grave necessity) should dispense with the moral law on his own. No one is a judge in his own case.

That said, even God’s law needs proper application to particular circumstances. St. Thomas (quoting St. Hilary) noted the following:

The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it, because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things. Therefore, we should take account of the motive of the lawgiver, rather than [merely] of his very words. He also commented, then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good.

Therefore, the Lord left His Church to apply His word to particular circumstances. Without the remembrance that even God’s law speaks to the general and not to every specific case, the written law, univocally read without any reference to God’s overall will, could be reduced to obtuse absurdities and a hurtful legalism.

So law—especially God’s law—is essential and it usually applies, but there are exceptional circumstances; many laws can and do admit of certain exceptions. St. Thomas traces out for us a good balance to seek between legalism and a sort of autonomy that claims the personal right to be dismissive of the law as one sees fit. Many in the modern world get this balance wrong.

Here is a song that reflects the immature, rebellious attitude toward the law that is common today:

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Comments (9)

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  1. Kelly says:

    Have you ever written a book, Monsignor? (Forgive my ignorance if you have!) Your reflections are so meaty, worth far more than the few minutes I can give to a blog post. Your thoughts are so good and helpful. Thank you!

    Blessings…

  2. Linda says:

    Ditto what Kelly says. Love your thoughts, Monsignor!

  3. Monsenior, How would you apply this divorced and remarried couples receiving communion?

  4. Marie says:

    At least one further distinction is warranted: between Revealed Law (Decalogue) and Church disciplines (such as those requiring Mass attendance).
    .
    While Aquinas’ comments on the civil law are certainly helpful as far as they go, I draw the line at saying the *omniscient* Divine Lawgiver “cannot have in view every single case”.
    .
    There are prohibitions that admit of no exceptions.

  5. Charity may be the highest law but keeping it simple is a lot easier when it comes to following the law. That is probably why we were given the ten commandments and the two greater laws given by Jesus. Simple pictures are the best. Go beyond that and it’s a slippery slope.

  6. for you says:

    Thank you Msgr. for ALL your Wisdom. There is the law and then there is the allowance for exceptions to the law under extenuating circumstances, where the law would be unrighteous and harsh. Still, there are those who would “use” exceptions to do evil that we must also be aware of. But GOD knows everything… why do evil when we can do Good! So do Good, do what is right and in harmony with GOD’s Righteousness and GOD WILL always bless it!

  7. Morrie Chamberlain says:

    I have in my hands Peter Kreeft “Practical Theology” which treats 358 pieces of wisdom from Aquinas’s Summa Theological including # 128 “The Spirit versus the letter of the law”. Peter Kreeft states that the point of the law is to align two wills, that of the lawgiver and that of the law obeyers. I think this is a good summary.

    In regards to a book, Charles Pope could take his Summa backed posts and make a meatier version of Kreeft’s book but it would probably have to be in three volumes.

    Keep up the good work monsignor

  8. Richard Connell says:

    That is a great quote: Hilary says (De Trin. iv): “The meaning of what is said is according to the motive for saying it: because things are not subject to speech, but speech to things,” and it is one way of explaining the unpleasant trans-sex movement: an effort to subject things to speech and innumerable variations on the concept of make-up.

  9. Kristin says:

    Thanks a lot, this helped me tremendously. When people distinguish between letter and spirit, they sometimes insinuate that the law is something we outgrow when we become more spiritually mature. That always bothered me, and I struggled to articulate how we could prioritize the spirit in certain cases while also upholding the goodness of the law. I’ve never heard the law defended (and also put in its proper place) quite the way you have here. Basically, you’re saying: “the law is good, but finite.” We rightly suspend it in certain cases not because there is something wrong with the law itself, but because of its limitations as something finite. So helpful!