OVERCOMING LAWLESSNESS AND LEGALISM IN THE SPIRIT
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ GALATIANS 5:18-25; LUKE 11:42-46 ]
How can we enter the kingdom of God? To answer this question, it presupposes we understand what the kingdom of God is. It is the reign of God’s love, justice and peace. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev21:3f) Conversely, those who live a lawless and self-indulgent life cannot find happiness because God is not in them and they are not in God. This is what St Paul wrote, “When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious: fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies and similar things. I warn you now, as I warned you before: those who behave like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Lawless people are a law to themselves. They are ignorant of the greater joy and happiness of life. They are enslaved by their addictions to the world and their passions. They think that they are free to do what they like but in truth they are not free because it is their passions that control them, the world that dictates to them what they should like and enjoy and have. They are at the mercy of the world’s enticements and changing goals. The world promises them illusory happiness which never arrives. The world misleads them into working and becoming ambitious for more power, wealth and position. After spending their whole life laboring for such worldly things, they come to realize the futility and emptiness of popularity, power and wealth. This desire to find fulfillment in the things of this world leads to competition, selfishness, quarrels and division. When there is no peace and unity, there can be no joy or security in life!
To overcome lawlessness and injustices, laws are instituted. But as St Paul wrote, laws are meant for the wicked, not for the good. “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Tim 1:8-11)
Ironically, the laws can cause us to commit more sins because the devil will tempt us to break the laws since what is forbidden looks more attractive and enticing. Life is so ironical. We desire what we cannot have and what we have, we no longer treasure. The devil plays on our cravings, and that is why he entices us. But the moment we have them, we lose our passion and our interests. This is true for everything, whether it is a car, a house or a job, or even our friends. This was what St Paul wrote, “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (Rom 7:7-11)
Indeed, the laws can only tell us what is right or wrong but they cannot empower us to obey. This is because laws are written not in the hearts of men but on tablets. We are basically disobedient people. We want to have things our way because we are ignorant and we allow our passions and desires to control our thoughts and actions. We are also proud people and we will not submit to authority or to an external law. We want to do what we like and often because of ignorance, hurt ourselves and our loved ones in the process. Deep in the hearts of men, we find the laws a burden to us. We are hostile towards the laws. Some would break them and those who comply do so only with resentment. So we pretend to obey the laws, but we know we cannot. And even if we do, we are not happy to obey.
As a consequence, those who seek to obey the laws fall into legalism. The Pharisees were condemned for their inconsistencies. “Alas for you Pharisees! You who pay your tithe of mint and rue and all sorts of garden herbs and overlook justice and the love of God! These you should have practised, without leaving the others undone.” Yes, we can be honouring all the petty laws but the more important and over-arching laws, we do not observe. How often self-righteous Catholics squabble among themselves over liturgical laws and church laws, but they lack the most important virtues in life, that is, charity, compassion, forgiveness and inclusivity. They are good at finger-pointing. They take pleasure in fault-finding, as if they are so perfect.
Behind the self-righteousness of people are pride and egotism. Like the Pharisees, we want to be seen and thought highly by others. “Alas for you Pharisees who like taking the seats of honour in the synagogues and being greeted obsequiously in the market squares! Alas for you, because you are like the unmarked tombs that men walk on without knowing it!” We observe the laws for the wrong motive. It is about ourselves and not about the love of God and our fellowmen. In such a situation, it is also a sin because sin is to live for oneself, and love is to live for others. Observing the laws with such motive does not free a person for life and love. We are no better than those who break the laws.
Such people are hypocritical. They themselves know that they are not able to keep the laws that they teach and impose on others. And yet they demand that others follow what they are not able to do. “Alas for you lawyers also,’ he replies, ‘because you load on men burdens that are unendurable, burdens that you yourselves do not move a finger to lift.” Those of us who are legalistic should ask ourselves whether we have fulfilled the laws perfectly, not just according to the letter but according to the spirit of the laws. The Lord said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” (Jn 8:7) Hence, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Mt 7:1f)
Of course, there is no denying that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (Rom 7:12) The psalmist says, “Happy indeed is the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked; nor lingers in the way of sinners nor sits in the company of scorners, but whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. Not so are the wicked, not so! For they like winnowed chaff shall be driven away by the wind for the Lord guards the way of the just but the way of the wicked leads to doom.” So the law is good. Indeed, “Anyone who follows you, O Lord, will have the light of life. He is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade; and all that he does shall prosper.”
What is needed then is to let the Spirit of God, the spirit of love reign in us. St Paul exhorts us, “Since the Spirit is our life, let us be directed by the Spirit. What the Spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We must allow the laws to guide us in our daily life, but we must invite the Spirit of God to lead us and empower us to love and serve God and others. But we “cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless (we) crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires.” Only Christ can help us to overcome legalism and lawlessness by showing us the light and love of the laws.
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.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.