I suppose we all remember the scandal about MPs’ expenses. Most of them were embarrassed or ashamed. One of the most common excuses and justifications was that they had not broken the law. Seemingly they are right because except for a couple of them (so far) no one else has been prosecuted and sentenced. Sometimes I have the impression that people have begun thinking: ‘if something is not forbidden it is permitted’. In legal terms that might be true – but law simply can’t foresee all possible situations.
Today’s long passage of the gospel speaks about the law given by Moses and the traditions that followed on from there. Jesus announces that his mission doesn’t concern abolishing the law. There are some examples where Jesus does things required by law. His words: ‘not one dot, one little stroke shall disappear from the law until its purpose is achieved’ ought to be understood as confirming that law is the foundation of people’s interactions. But then Jesus continues his teachings using phrases like: ‘You have learnt… But I say this to you’. It seems that Jesus contradicts the law, replacing it with a new one.
When I was a student in the seminary once my professor of Canon Law (the Catholic Church’s law) was asked why its demands are so low key. His reply was simple: ‘the law shows the bottom line and only wickedness is underneath that; but the law doesn’t stop anybody from being a saint’. That was quite a revelation!
The teaching of Jesus is not a contradiction of the law, but it gives further, moral, ethical reasons for respecting other people and their needs. As the law draws the bottom line so we are called to be saints. Of course that’s not as simple as it might seem – but it is possible when we make an effort to rise above our selfishness and dependence on the law. Today’s gospel is not offering a new law impossible to keep – it’s an invitation to sainthood in our everyday life.