RITUALS AND LAWS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Exodus 11:10-12:14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-18; Matthew 12:1-8 ]
We can fall into extreme positions by being legalistic about the observance of rituals and laws of religion and society; or a total disregard for them, seeing them as childish and silly. The truth is that every religion and society needs rituals and laws to guide the community. This was why Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)
Rituals are important to call to mind what happened in the past so that remembering the past will help the present community to be grateful for the present. By celebrating the past, we also learn the lessons our ancestors had gone through so that we would not repeat the same mistakes and at the same time celebrate their achievements and joy. Celebrating the rituals also has to do with the sense of the Sacred; that there is something beyond the individual and the community. Whether they are religious rituals or national rituals, there is a sense of the sacred even though it is not always explicitly mentioned, especially in cultural and community celebrations. If not, why do we stand upright or salute our National Flag and sing our National Anthem with respect and reverence? Simply because there is something sacred in what we are doing. Furthermore, this is the way communities celebrate their dreams and hopes for their community and nation.
So, for every culture, community, country and religion there will be rituals. In the first reading, we have the institution of the Feast of the Passover. For the Israelites, this was by far the most important among all the other rituals and celebrations. The Lord said to them, “This day is to be a day of remembrance for you, and you must celebrate it as a feast in the Lord’s honour. For all generations you are to declare it a day of festival, for ever.” Indeed, this was the decisive event that changed the lives of the Hebrews. They were liberated from the slavery of the Egyptians after spending four hundred and thirty years with them! From then on, they would become a nation themselves, with their own land and their own king. But it would be another four hundred and forty years before they could enter the Promised Land and eventually establish it as a United Kingdom under King David! What kept the dream and the hopes of the people alive was the celebration of the rituals, particularly the Passover. Not only did it keep their dreams alive but it also brought the people together.
Besides the rituals, every community, religious or otherwise, requires laws to govern the people so that they can live in harmony with one another, respecting the rights and freedom of each other. Again, no organization or community can do without laws. Laws are meant to help everyone to be disciplined so that justice will prevail. In the gospel, we have the Sabbath Law, which the Jews kept meticulously. As in all laws, there is also a narrow interpretation, that is, according to the letter of the law; and there is a broad interpretation according to the Spirit of the law. This is where the tension arises.
Some are too legalistic in the interpretation of the laws and would even elaborate all the specific instances how the law, in this case, the Sabbath, is to be applied. The Sabbath only requires the Jews to make a day of rest, freed from work, so that they can spend time with their loved ones at home and make time to acknowledge God as the creator and their divine providence. This was the intent of the Sabbath Law. However, those with legalistic minds began to inquire what this “rest” entailed. They took the law so seriously that they went to the extent of specifying exactly how this law was to be observed. So over and above the basic Sabbath Law, they also expected all Jews to observe the extrapolations of this fundamental law. This made the Sabbath Law rather burdensome.
For this reason, Jesus sought to recover the true spirit and intention of the Sabbath Law. He was not against the practice of rituals, customs and the laws of Moses. On the contrary, He made it clear, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt 5:17) He reminded us to keep the principle and intention of the Law in perspective in the way the law is applied. The purpose of the Law is for the good of man. It is to protect him, not to destroy him. It is meant to give him life not to kill. So in the application of the law, we must always bear in mind whether we are promoting life and love. Rituals and laws must be at the service of love and life. Otherwise, they are redundant and only make us slaves.
Jesus illustrated how laws are to be interpreted by citing examples from scriptures. In the first instance, he gave the example of King David and his followers who ate the loaves of offerings meant for the priests only when they were hungry. David’s justification was that they were also on a holy mission. He said, “‘Indeed women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.” (1 Sm 21:5f) So the law is not absolute. It should be flexible enough to meet the basic needs of the people.
Secondly, Jesus said, “Have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath day the Temple priests break the Sabbath without being blamed for it?” Indeed, for the good and service of others, such obligations supersede that of the Sabbath Law. For the greater good of the people, priests, pastors and lay workers work even more on the Sabbath. Those providing public service and security are exempted from observing the Sabbath Law. The truth is that if everyone does not work on the Sabbath, then the whole city or town would be paralyzed and no one would be dealing with emergencies and the basic needs of life. In a pointed manner, Jesus put this question to the religious leaders when He wanted to heal the man with a withered hand, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mk 3:4) And to the leader of the synagogue who was indignant when Jesus healed a woman who was crippled for 18 years, He reprimanded them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Lk 13:15f)
Indeed, let us not be hypocritical in using the laws to judge people. We must take into consideration that people are human beings with feelings, limitations, different strengths, conditioned by upbringing and circumstances. Whilst the laws are objective principles, not every human person can measure himself perfectly to what the law demands. The laws unfortunately do not take into consideration the subjectivity of a person. This explains why Jesus said, “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)
God does not look at the external action we do, but He reads the intentions of the heart. That is why God’s judgement is always just. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” (Ps 139:1-3) Again Jeremiah said, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.” (Jer 17:9f) Only God’s judgement is just. Our judgment is always lacking justice because we do not take into account the situation of the person. We can never know fully what the person has gone through in life, the hurts, the wounds that he had suffered, and thereby conditioned him to act in such a manner. But God understands us and He knows our struggles and what causes us to act accordingly.
However, it is important that we do not fall into a situation where we discard all rituals and laws and fall into lawlessness. Indeed, those who think that they are beyond all laws must be careful to examine themselves to see whether they have been slaves to the works of the flesh, namely, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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