Our Gospel passage is a conundrum to both Scripture scholars, and likewise to the ordinary Scripture reader. The confusion arises because what Jesus exhorts us to do we, as a Church, simply do not do. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary comments, “No major Christian church requires observance of all 613 precepts of the Old Testament law, ethical and ceremonial, but only the ethical commands such as the Decalogue and the commands to love God and neighbor” (p. 641). The precepts of the Mosaic Law, beyond the Ten Commandments, formed the standards for religious holiness in Ancient Israel. Under the Law, to be holy and one with God was to follow all His precepts.
Early Christians were divided over the status of the mosaic law. Jewish-Christians or Christians who Judaized, i.e. non-Jewish Christians who wanted to live like Jews, thought that the Mosaic law was not abolished with Jesus. Rather, the Mosaic law had to be followed completely by Christians.
St. Paul believed God was leading the Church in a different direction. Paul wrote painstakingly in his epistles about how faith in Jesus is the true fulfillment of the Law. For Christians, to be virtuous is to follow a person: Jesus. The evangelist John summarizes it well when he describes Jesus as the “way, the truth, and the life.” The interpretation that continued in the Church was Paul’s focus on the spirit of the Law, rather than adherence to the Mosaic Law. This is an ancient debate that has a current application in our Lenten practices.
The radicalism of Paul’s claim is that we human beings are fulfilled only when we are in a relationship with Jesus. We might follow every Church precept, law or discipline out of obedience to what we think is right, but if we do not do it with Jesus we are missing the mark of our Christian vocation. Every Lent, the Church asks to be intentional with our prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. These are avenues to remind ourselves of our need and dependence on God; also, our acts of service and charity show us the dependence of God on us to care for His people. Whatever we commit to do this Lent, let it be with the intention to follow Jesus and not a Church rule to obey. Church rules lead us to meet Christ already in ourselves, in our Church, and the poor in our world.
How do my Lenten commitments allow me to encounter Jesus?
Quotation taken from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, & Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 641.