My husband could get our strong willed three-year-old daughter to behave in any variety of needed ways. First, he’d declare what was expected of her – put your toys away, brush your teeth, get ready for bed, leave the dog alone, wash your hands before you eat – you know - basic three-year-old things.
Inevitably, she’d want to know why these things were required of her – with a curiosity that I responded to with smart logical reasons – things like - clean up so we don’t hurt ourselves stepping on toys, brush your teeth so you don’t get cavities, go to bed so you can have energy to play tomorrow, etc. etc.
But he, took a different route with her incessant litany of why’s.
He had a simple answer – much better than the authoritarian “I told you so” that most parents or teachers rely on. When Claire asked why, he’d respond “because it’s in the rule book.” And that stopped her in her tracks. And instead of continuing with her usual “why” litany, she asked a new question - “where”?
Now– even I was curious.
Without skipping a beat, he marched with her to the kitchen, drew open the “junk” drawer (because who knows what useful thing you will find in there) – and pulled out – the Yellow pages – the biggest, thickest book we had in the house. He quickly filtered through a slew of pages, scanning carefully with his pointer for the rule in question. Aha. “He said finally, I found it - see, its right here”. He drew the page close so she could see, never mind that she could not read - ”three-year-old’s need to clean up their toys before they goto bed. There you have it, it’s the law – now get to it.” And don’t you know she did it. Genius. For this three-year-old, the “rule book” gave a prescription for how to behave. The letter of the law – that she trusted as it was handed to her.
We are indeed a people who have an interesting relationship with laws and rules. We follow traffic laws (usually, even when no one is looking), we pay attention to tax laws (mostly, hoping no one will look), we hire lawyers to help us understand laws and to bring about justice. Some of us want to create more laws – some want less. Laws set boundaries and level playing fields. Sadly, some laws have historically made it harder for whole populations to thrive. We argue – is it the letter of the law or the spirit of the law that is important – or some combination there-in. Some of us pride ourselves in being rule followers. Some in being rule breakers.
Our faith too has been built on its own history of teachings and laws which come with a different motivation – the promise of a covenant with God and eternal life. Even still, as people of faith – we can confuse legalism in following God’s law with their purpose and value, dismiss laws that challenge us too much or accept others unquestionably. Our readings today teach us a few things to keep in mind when considering our relationship to God’s law and our journey of discipleship.
In our lesson from Sirach, we are reminded that we have a choice to keep the commandments. That God’s wisdom is immense and will never lead us to sin. Choosing - seeking to follow the wisdom of God’s commandments will lead us to life. Our first lesson on law: God can be trusted.
In today’s Gospel, speaking to the people who were given God’s law through Moses, Jesus says “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” and then later, that their righteousness – their morality - needs to surpass that of the law-abiding scribes and pharisees. Don’t just avoid killing – avoid all anger, don’t just avoid false oaths – have integrity in everything. Do not just avoid adultery, but avoid the lust that leads to it – fulfill the law? Surpass the pharisees? How do we apply this beyond some of the extremes mentioned here?
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is actually the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. And what comes before it is Jesus teaching the beatitudes. We know that Jesus uses the beatitudes, indeed the whole sermon on the mount, to teach people about belonging to the Kingdom of God. It’s through living the beatitudes, that we can surpass the legalistic righteousness of the pharisees – taking the letter of God’s laws just a bit deeper in our practice of the moral life. – through the practice of humility, by seeking goodness, being merciful, working for peace – being pure of heart. These lessons must be applied to our approach to following God’s will in everything. Our second lesson - Jesus invites us to go deeper than legalism.
And finally, the psalmist today proclaims to God “give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart”. Our final lesson on the law – we must approach it with discernment, that process of decision-making where we prayerfully, patiently, seek relationship with God to understand God’s mysterious and hidden wisdom – that we may know how it is we are called to live. Our third lesson – Discernment, a gift from God leads us to God’s wisdom.
God’s law can be trusted
Jesus invites us to go deeper than the legalism of the pharisees
The spirit leads us in discernment to God’s wisdom
These are lessons for our spiritual journey. None of them simple. But all of them important as we cultivate a life of prayer and response to God. A “rule book” may work as a moral guide for a three-year-old. But we need something more than the prescriptive starting point or set of rules or list of laws. We need Jesus. We need Jesus, who takes us deeper into the mystery of God’s wisdom – who invites us to go deeper into the heart of God as we live into God’s kingdom. And this is the harder route – because it requires that we choose – each and every day – to surrender our complicated opinions and relationship with the law – and to trust in God, to show us how to follow. Amen.
Crystal Caruana Sullivan
Crystal Caruana Sullivan
Crystal Sullivan lives in Dayton, OH and has served as the Executive Director of Campus Ministry at the University of Dayton, A Catholic Marianist university, since 2011. Prior to this, she served as Associate Director for Residence Life Ministry and the Campus Ministry Graduate Assistant Program at UD. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, bachelors in Religious Studies and Biology from Kalamazoo College, and is a certified Campus Minister and Marianist Educational Associate. Crystal has served at both Catholic and public universities in her 29 years in ministry and contributes nationally to formation experiences and leadership for ministry in higher education. She has published various articles related to campus ministry mission and practice. Over the years, her ministry passions have included fostering opportunities for student participation in the leadership of ministry, appropriating the faith and catechetical opportunities, training and mentoring future pastoral ministers, liturgy, religious diversity and inclusivity, and fostering Catholic and Marianist identity development within Catholic Higher Education. Crystal is a Lay Marianist and a member of the Micah Theotokos community. Crystal and her spouse David have two adult children.