TRUTH IS SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [2 Cor 3:4-11; Ps 99:5-9; Mt 5:17-19]
In the history of humanity, moral, doctrinal, political, economic and social positions have swung from one extreme to the other. Until the 18th century, most held absolutist views on many things, not just religious but also in other areas of life. But over the last two centuries, particularly the last 50 years, relativism seems to be the position that many holds today.
Relativism leads to pragmatism because values and customs are ever changing. No one can say he has the truth because, in relativism, truth is relative. Relativism has serious implications in the way we look at the world and its issues. What was not held to be right in those days is no longer deemed to be wrong or irrelevant. Even those who hold positions on anything today hold them only for a time. Indeed, it is difficult to gather any real consensus on anything today.
The impact of relativism on faith is humanism. Until the 18th century, atheism was considered a crime. Everyone had to be a believer in God. Today, it seems to be a crime and if not, certainly frowned upon to say that we are believers of some religion because it implies that we are superstitious, silly, fanatical and illogical. That is why, the novelty today is to say, we are “free-thinkers.” Moving faith to atheism, the world at this stage is coming to the heart of idolatry; the worship of self, often seen in the claim for absolute freedom to do whatever one likes, self-aggrandizement and egotism.
Indeed, relativism leads to individualism and an over exaggerated understanding of freedom that leads to abuses. The world has moved from slavery to democracy, defining the freedom of the individual, but this has unwittingly led to lawlessness where everyone in the name of freedom chooses to do what he likes, even when the rights and sensitivities of others around him or her are violated and trampled upon. Individualism is the opposite spectrum of what society then promoted – communalism. So, from communalism to communism, we are now tending towards a gross misunderstanding of democracy and freedom. Hence, the world now has problems dealing with fake news, hate speech and the like.
The most important impact of relativism is on morality. Whereas in those days things were seen to be clearly right or wrong, today, moral principles are blurred. At one time, promiscuity, infidelity and cohabitation were clearly condemned and seen as wrong. Today, the world advocates divorce and cohabitation. Marriage is no longer seen as sacred and vows are no longer taken seriously. Of course, other related issues such as transgender and same-sex relationship, which were disavowed since the beginning of the human race, are now upheld as a norm.
So where is the truth? Are the laws of God absolute and to be obeyed without question? In the gospel, Jesus spoke about fidelity to the laws even though ironically He broke many of the Jewish laws, including the Sabbath as was practiced. Jesus said, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.” But how could these words match the life and conduct of Jesus? There seems to be a contradiction. Yet this was not the case. Jesus was not just speaking about fulfilling the external observance of the Laws. To fulfill the laws perfectly, the motives, understanding and intentions must also be right. If we are observing the laws blindly and slavishly, we are in truth not fulfilling the laws rightly.
Jesus came to perfect the laws in that He wants us to obey them but with love and in total allegiance to God, not so much to simply observe the laws. So whilst it is true that Jesus broke some of the Jewish laws, He did not break them out of spite, indulgence to oneself or rebellion but He did so for a greater good, for the love of God and His fellowmen. Laws are not meant to restrict the life and happiness of a person but to guard and protect his happiness, which is related to others’ happiness. Laws help to govern the community to act charitably, responsibly and sensitively towards each other. So when Jesus said He had come to fulfill the laws perfectly, it was truly so because Jesus showed sincerity, honesty and commitment to the work of love, compassion and mercy. Thus Jesus remarked, “Therefore the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.”
However, the teachings of Jesus on the importance of the laws seem to be discredited by Paul in the first reading. He seems to be denigrating the laws of the Old Covenant and instead spoke of the Spirit in the New Covenant. He wrote, “He is the one who has given us the qualifications to be the administrators of this new covenant, which is not a covenant of written letters but of the Spirit: the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life.” But if we read the intent of his letter, this is not really the case. Paul was also not against the laws because they still served as guidelines to right living and relationship, but they were powerless because they were set on stones and tablets.
So, whilst recognizing the beauty and goodness of the laws, Paul spoke of a higher and more powerful principle to help us to live the law of love. He said, “Now if the administering of death, in the written letters engraved on stones, was accompanied by such a brightness that the Israelites could not bear looking at the face of Moses, though it was a brightness that faded, then how much greater will be the brightness that surrounds the administering of the Spirit!” The point is that the laws can only bring death because it condemns us. We are not justified by the laws and we remain powerless in fulfilling the laws.
Instead, Paul offered a richer and more effective way of finding salvation and justification through the Spirit of the Lord Jesus, which is the Spirit of love that lives in us. This is the only principle that could make it possible for us to live in the Spirit of the Laws. He said, “For if there was any splendour in administering condemnation, there must be very much greater splendour in administering justification. In fact, compared with the greater splendour, the thing that used to have such splendour now seems to have none; and if what was so temporary had any splendour, there must be much more in what is going to last for ever.”
What can we surmise from this reflection on the extreme positions that people hold with respect to faith, morality, political, social and economic constructs? In life, we must respect that in all things there is continuity. But it cannot be a simple continuity. Growth means sometimes taking a leap. On the other hand, growth cannot be something that underscores discontinuity. If that were the case, it can no longer be considered as growth but an entirely new reality. So the truth, while we hold to be absolute, can grow in terms of understanding and application. But it cannot be something in contradiction to what has been held as absolute.
This is how the Church advances in doctrines, morality and in worship through research and study, reflection and prayers. “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum 8b)
So whether it is with regard to the celebration of the liturgy, Latin or vernacular, Vatican II’s updating of the church and its doctrines, moral doctrines, etc, we must ensure that whatever we decide is a development of truths that we have received. We must view all the different positions in context, understand the principles underlying the views, and seek the truth together in love and charity. It is a journey that we need to take together in total openness to the Spirit, the dynamic force who is leading the Church to grow from strength to strength. Indeed, the truth often lies somewhere in the middle of extreme positions. We need to contain what is old and accommodate what is new. This has been the guideline given to us by the Lord. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Mt 13:52)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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