Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Dead or alive
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the February 16, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
Frequently in the Old Testament, Moses, the God-selected prophet, is portrayed as the messenger par excellence who presents God’s Law to a resistant people. The phrasing nearly always follows the same pattern: Here is God’s Law. Follow it and live. Ignore or disobey it and die. The choice is yours to make. God, obviously, would prefer if you followed it. No threat of lightning bolts, though; the Law is for your own good, but obedience in love cannot be forced.
The struggling response God’s people make to this invitation is manifest throughout the Old Testament: in narratives, psalms, the stories of kings, and the clarion call of the prophets. Obedience or disobedience? Usually more on the disobedience side. From king to lowliest peasant, the challenge constantly is the same: to walk in accordance with God’s saving law, or….
When the ear and the heart are caught by the challenge of the Ten Commandments – God’s law – the overriding command seems a bit vague. On the one hand, the Commandments seem to cut quite to the point; a second glance, however, reveals the necessity to constantly give the Law practical shape in daily life. Obedience to the Law calls for constant personal choice and responsibility.
The same struggle continued in Jesus’ day. We find ready evidence of it in the Gospel narratives. The problem came to a head in the ministry of Jesus. He and his disciples frequently are confronted by the Pharisees, Sadducees, elders and chief priests who championed themselves as experts in what they delighted in calling the “Way of the Elders.” Jesus forthrightly accused them of replacing the Law of God with their own legal creations, making obedience to human precepts the litmus test or measure of standing undefiled (or clean) before the Almighty.
It is important to note that Jesus does not deny the importance of the precepts of religious practice. Interestingly, such human precepts are necessary. After all, the nature of the overriding command of God is its calls for practical application. But human precepts remain human precepts. They are relative to the divine command found in the Big Ten. Their value is found in their ability to incarnate the obligation to authentic living found in the God’s Law.
Jesus knew well that human dictates are a source of temptation, whether they address moral matters or the trappings of religious ritual. Such dictates can be corralled and manipulated. One knows right where to stand in front of them; the line between obedience and disobedience can be drawn easily. A second temptation is stronger than the first: to use obedience of the letter of the law to one’s advantage. One human precept can be played off against another and the “believer” can develop a false (human-created) sense of standing okay before God. Self-righteousness sets in and a corrupting form of spiritual death takes hold. The “obedient servant” of law readily becomes a walking corpse, spiritually speaking. The death may not be so obvious to the on-looker but it is known well in the honesty of heart and conscience.
When Jesus and his disciples are challenged for not washing their hands before eating, not fasting at certain times, husking corn or healing (that is, working) on the Sabbath, he identifies the spiritual malady for what it is. It is the worst kind of hypocrisy: lip service to the Law of God. The vehemence of the objection voice by his accusers is public confession to their spiritual blindness and hardness of heart. The dead are criticizing the source of life itself.
To walk in faith necessarily requires the practicalities of religion. We always will have “organized religion” in that sense. But healthy spirituality maintains proper perspective. The challenge always before us is to walk in the authentic Way of the Elders – that is, the fundamental truth of the Ten Commandments. Constant must be our guard not to fall into the trap of playing games with our practices and self-serving decisions. History has shown us how easy it is, for example, to weigh sins as mortal or (only!) venial; to argue about how many ounces of meat one can eat on Good Friday; to plan cookie-eating to coincide with the Eucharistic fast; or to time arrival at Mass before the priest takes the veil off the chalice (and to stay, of course, only until he starts his Communion).
We often chuckle at this sampling of Catholic heritage. We do so from a position of presumed enlightenment, claiming now to know well the difference between the letter of the law and its so-called spirit. We would like to assert that we recognize the relative nature of these (and many other) human precepts. However, while tossing slavery to their literal practice out the window, we could end up neglecting the true Way of the Elders given us in the Ten Commandments. The practice of religion and the making of wholesome moral choices still have their importance. The Church’s challenge to do penance for our sins, to give alms, to live moral lives (and yes, to join the community in worship on the Lord’s Day), etc., etc., remain important. For those who do not or cannot grasp the larger issues at stake, the human precepts act as an obliging push in the proper direction.
Walking in the Way of the Elders – obedience to the truth of the Ten Commandments – cannot be reduced to a mere matter of having good intentions. (We all know where that well-paved road leads.) To follow the spirit of God’s Law is to walk always (daily) with the attitude of discovering afresh and anew ways to show obedience to that Law in the way we live and act. Therein is found neither safety, security, litmus tests – nor game-playing. Each of the Ten Commandments is open-ended in its demands, but each remains an uncomfortable challenge to life. We worship God in spirit and in truth, not in some abstract way, but in the concrete practice of religion, especially in the way we relate to one another. Whether we choose to obey or disobey God’s Law is indeed a matter of life or death.
(Father Savelesky is director of the diocese’s Deacon Formation Program, pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane, and Moderator of the Curia for the Spokane Diocese.)
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