13TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – JUNE 28, 1998 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
There is a paradox in today’s NT readings. On the one hand, there are Paul’s strong statements: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free,” and, “If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” On the other hand, there is his statement that we stand under the supreme law of love and are engaged in a struggle between flesh and spirit. And then there is the uncompromising call of Jesus that he will not allow even the most sacred of duties–that of burying one’s father–to postpone commitment to him, a statement so harsh, the scholars say, that it has to be an authentic statement, and then comes his warning that once you put your hand to the plow there can be no turning back. How can this be freedom?
The Messiah and the Apostle both assume an either-or world. Paul contrasts slavery and freedom, flesh and spirit. Jesus contrasts two families, the old one of blood relationships, the new one formed around himself, living in and for the Kingdom of God he was announcing and bringing. For neither of them can a person live in both realms: you are either a slave or free, you are either alive in the new family or dead in the old one.
The solution to the paradox, as such brilliant commentators as Augustine, Aquinas, and John Henry Newman saw, lies in overcoming the idea that, for the Christian, law is an external imposition, something that comes simply from outside us, what Paul calls a “yoke of slavery” placed on our shoulders. Jesus used the same metaphor when he said that his yoke was easy and his burden light. How can such demands be easy and light? They can become such, be experienced as such, only when the law ceases to be something external and becomes an inner law of our inmost being, and that can only happen when we love.
St. Thomas Aquinas put it well when he wrote that if we do good and avoid evil simply because the one is commanded and the other forbidden, we are not free with the freedom for which Christ set us free. But when we do the good because we love the good and avoid evil because we hate evil, then are we free as he would have us free. Then we are generally free, no longer under the law, Paul said, because the law is no longer over us, outside us, but within us, defining who we are, inspiring our instincts, having become what we call our second nature. Consider an example. How real is a marriage-relationship if one of the parties is faithful only reluctantly, out of fear, say, of being caught? But where there is genuine love and commitment, the duty of fidelity is not something simply imposed by external law but is the inner law of one’s being, defines who one is, makes fidelity not a duty but a desire.
This is what Jesus was driving at in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that it was not enough for his disciples not to murder, they could not even hate; it was not enough to refrain from adultery, they could not even lust; it was not enough to refrain from lying when under oath, they could not ever lie. External obedience is not enough. What he wants is inner commitment. He does not want merely our actions; he wants our very selves. For those who do not love this must appear like slavery. For those who love this is experienced as liberation. The dramatic difference is wonderfully illustrated in the dialogue that ends the parable of the lost son: when older brother and father are revealed to live in two different worlds, the realm of resentment inhabited by the one who will not join in the celebration of his brother’s return, the realm of joy inhabited by the father who races to embrace his repentant son and welcome him home. Why do they live in different worlds? Because the father loves as his older son does not. How do you get from one world to the other? By surrendering to love.
“If you are guided by the spirit,” Paul says, “you are not under the law.” This is not, as he takes pains to say, an invitation to license, to indulgence in the slavery of the flesh. It is an invitation to freedom, to a life that is experienced as love, joy, peace, and fidelity. We can take such experiences as measures of whether we live by the Spirit. If our fidelity, to God and to one another, is joyful and peaceful, it is genuine love and freedom. If it is resentful and begrudged, then it is not love but slavery. We have here a criterion that strikes deeper than the simple criterion of obedience to written law. This law is inner, and God wishes it to be written on our hearts.