Almost Jesus’s first word, after the Beatitudes, is about the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. . . . Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We can learn much from this Sunday’s readings about mercy and justice.
Now, often people think of justice and mercy as opposites, identifying one with the Old Testament and the other with the New. But this is not Jesus’s attitude. Jesus does not think the Old Testament was evil, or harsh.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.”
“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The pattern is clear: what the Law of the Old Testament set out, Jesus intensifies. He fulfills the Law by showing the heart of the matter. The prohibition against adultery is not about seeing how far you can tiptoe before it counts as adultery. The prohibition against adultery is about rooting out anything in our attitude toward sexuality that undermines marriages. And so too with the other commandments.
When it says “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” the word is actually the word for justice. One of the things Jesus’s reinterpretation of the Law shows us is that justice defined as obeying legal commands and justice defined as treating other people right are one and the same: the Law commands that we treat other people right, profoundly right. And Jesus is on the side of justice.
But what about mercy? The reading from Sirach helps us go a little deeper. “Before man are life and death, good and evil,” it says. “Whichever he chooses shall be given him.” The Bible presents justice, fulfillment of the Law, as good for us. The commandments are not ugly obligations, restricting our freedom and crimping our life. They are life, goodness. Injustice is death.
We are made for relationships: for relationships with other people, and relationship with God. When the Law commands healthy relationships, it commands our own health. It is good for us to fulfill the Law. The Law itself, precisely by teaching justice, is mercy, because justice is good for us.
A “mercy” that set us free from the Law, allowing us to be unjust, would be no mercy at all, because it would allow us to self-destruct, by destroying our relationships.
But God is still more merciful than that. “If you choose you can keep the commandments,” says Sirach. I don’t think the original readers of the Old Testament were any more clueless about this than we are. I can? Actually, it’s really hard to fulfill the commandments! The Pharisees devoted their whole lives to fulfilling the commandments – and Jesus says their righteousness was not good enough.
But Sirach immediately goes on: “If you trust in God, you too shall live.” A moment later it will say, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power.” This is two different things. We trust the wisdom of the Lord by accepting his Law. But we trust in the power of God by begging him to help us. We can only fulfill the Law, only live true justice, by the grace he gives us.
That, in fact, is precisely what “grace” means: the power, which only God himself can give us, to live true justice, true righteousness, true, perfect right relationship with our neighbor and with God.
The reading from First Corinthians gives us a glimpse deeper in. God’s wisdom is “not a wisdom of this age.” He offers us something greater than we can imagine, “which God predetermined before the ages for our glory.” “This God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
The great mercy of Jesus Christ is not to set us free from the Law, not to ignore our injustice, but to make us just, and good, so that we can fulfill the beautiful Law of justice and right relationship.
Are there times when you have trouble appreciating the mercy of the Law? When you have trouble seeing the good in being just?