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The Law:
Road to Life

by Irene Nowell, O.S.B

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul, ...rejoicing the heart,...more desirable than gold,...sweeter than honey— (Ps 19:8, 9, 11). Is that the way you think of law? Or do you consider —an eye for an eye— to be the whole of Old Testament law? Do you scorn the Pharisees because you have heard they were attempting to keep an extraordinary number of laws? Do you think that Jesus (or Paul) abolished the law? What is the meaning of law in the Bible and what can it possibly have to do with us at the beginning of the third millennium?

Think of the relationships in your life. Do these relationships make demands on you? Isn—t it true that the closer and more intense the relationship, the more consuming are the demands? All law is based on the demands of relationships. The Bible teaches us that righteousness, holiness, is being faithful to the demands of all our relationships. Our family has a right to expect certain things of us. Our employers have a right to expect other things. We live in a vast web of relationships—with our neighbors, with our nation, with our church, with all peoples of the world. We have an amazingly intimate relationship with the rest of the universe and we live by our relationship with God. All these relationships make demands on us. Righteousness is fidelity to all these demands and sometimes requires an intricate balancing act! The law is simply a description of what these demands usually look like.

In the Bible the relationships that sustain our lives are called —covenant.— The covenant is the life-sharing bond with God and with each other that defines our lives. Covenant law then describes the —norm— (that is, the normal state) of every one of our relationships. It tells me how to worship God and what to do when my ox gores my neighbor—s ox! It tells me how to care for my fruit trees and how to care for the poor in my neighborhood. But I can never forget that the written law is not the final word! In the end, righteousness, the way to live well, is always based on relationships. I can never escape into rigid interpretation of the law and neglect the beauty and complexity of living relationships. The law is meant to serve life, not to stifle it.

Types of Law

The complexity of our daily lives calls for different kinds of laws. Sometimes the phrasing of a law is absolute (called —apodictic—). Remember the laws your parents gave you: Don—t cross the street. Don—t talk to strangers. Don—t touch the stove. There were no reasons given for those laws. There were no conditions for heeding, adapting, or ignoring them. No parent ever said, —Don—t cross the street unless your ball has rolled out there.— There are apodictic laws in the Bible too. The Ten Commandments are apodictic: Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. No reasons or conditions are given. These laws are absolute.

Often, however, relationships are so complex that laws must be constructed with various conditions. Slow down to 20 mph in this block if this is a school day. Pay such-and-such a percentage of your income in tax if you are in such-and-such a bracket. Various kinds of activity are permitted or prohibited depending on the situation. American civil law is almost totally case (or conditional) law. That—s why lawyers spend so much time in school and have such extensive libraries. They have to know the various cases, the precedents and the demands for each situation. There is case law in the Bible too: —When a man borrows an animal from his neighbor, if it is maimed or dies while the owner is not present, the man must make restitution. But if the owner is present, he need not make restitution. If it was hired, this was covered by the price of its hire— (Ex 22:13-14). Case law, much of which is ordinary civil law, is a major reason for the length of the law collections in the Bible. How long would the Bible be if we included all of American civil law!

Tit for Tat

What about that —eye for an eye—? The law of tit for tat (often called by its Latin name, lex talionis) is a serious stumbling block when we look at biblical law. It occurs first in a regulation regarding the injury of a pregnant woman——If injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe——and appears later regarding a perjurer and in a general context (Ex 21:23-24; see also Lv 24:20; Dt 19:21).

Is this really the heart of Old Testament law? If we read the rest of the law carefully, it does not seem so. First of all, the point of this law is the limitation of violence. If you break my leg, the worst thing I can do to you is break your leg. I cannot kill you. Secondly, this law of tit for tat is borrowed from the Code of Hammurabi, an eighteenth century b.c.e. Mesopotamian ruler. In Hammurabi—s code there are a lot of examples of mutilation—eyes being gouged out, hands being cut off—but the Old Testament lawgivers have omitted all but one of those cases of mutilation. (The single remaining law calling for mutilation is in Dt 25:11-12. Look it up and see if you can figure out why!) So the dramatic call for retaliation remains, but the punishment for most infractions in the Old Testament is a monetary fine or restitution. The significant exception is the death penalty for crimes against God, life, or family (see Ex 21:12, 15-17, 31:14-15).

Goal of the Law

God, in offering to make covenant with the people at Sinai, makes some wonderful promises: —If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation— (Ex 19:5-6).

This covenant relationship is transforming. The covenant people will be holy, priestly, chosen. They are chosen to be priestly, thus to minister the blessing of holiness to all people as God promised to Abraham: —All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you— (Gn 12:3). What is this holiness that they are called to minister? What does it mean to be holy, to be righteous?

God instructs Moses to tell the people: —Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy— (Lv 19:1). To be holy is first of all to be like God. Why is this so? In Genesis we are told that we human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27). It is inscribed in the very plan of our being (in our DNA?) to be like God! In Genesis 3 the serpent suggests that to be like God we should disobey God (Gn 3: 5). We all know that this first attempt did not turn out well! So, beginning with Abraham, God strives to show us how to be fully who we are, fully human, genuine images of God. Each successive renewal and development of the covenant is intended to draw us closer to God. Covenant law, then, is the manual for learning God-likeness, for learning how to be human.

Specific laws demonstrate this goal: You shall have just weights and measures because God is just (Lv 19:36; see Ps 11:7). You shall care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, because God cares for them (Dt 24:17-22; see Pss 68:6; 146:9). You shall rest on the Sabbath day because God rested (Ex 20:8-11). The heart of the law, honoring the demands of each relationship, also shows that the goal of the law is to teach us how to be like God. The heart of the law is love: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole strength (Dt 6:5). You shall love your neighbor as yourself and the alien too (Lv 19:18, 34). To love all people and all things is the key to being like God, the great lover: —For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned— (Wis 11:24).

Thus the law is the road to life, sweeter than honey, more precious than gold, refreshing the heart. The law is the guide to being fully human, and in being fully human we are most fully images of God! —I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life...by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you— (Dt 30:19, 20). The psalmist tells us that those people are happy who delight in the law of the Lord and study it day and night. They are like a flourishing tree, drinking in the nourishing water of God—s word (Ps 1:1-3).

Jesus: Word of God

God—s —final answer— to our question of how to be God-like is Jesus, fully God and fully human. In this awesome task, Jesus does not see the law as a hindrance. His whole life is a demonstration of the heart of the law: love. He interprets the law, not by the letter but according to the demands of relationships. He heals on the Sabbath because the need of the sufferer takes precedence over Sabbath observance: —Ought not this daughter of Abraham have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?— (Luke 13:16). He recognizes that the law demands a change of heart, not just external conformity: —Leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled with your brother— (Mt 5:24).

He answers the question concerning the greatest commandment in the tradition of his time. Rabbi Hillel (80 b.c.e.-10 c.e.), when asked to recite the whole law while standing on one foot, said: —What is hateful to you, don—t do to your neighbor. That is the whole law, the rest is commentary.— Jesus lists two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbor (Mt 22:34-40). The Gospel of John, however, reports a new commandment. Instead of —love your neighbor as yourself,— Jesus says, —love one another as I have loved you— (Jn 13:34-35). The goal of the law is to be like God, to learn to love as God loves! Our teacher is Jesus, the Word of God, the Law of God made flesh.

So Paul can say that we are saved, not by observance of the letter of the law, but by Christ. He states that the heart of the law is love: —Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, —You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,— and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, —You shall love your neighbor as yourself.— Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law— (Rom 13:8-10). —But the letter of the law kills; it is faithfulness to the demands of all our relationships that gives life. And that fidelity is love. We learn that fidelity from Christ, who for us became sin that we might become the very righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).—

This is the law that is sweetness and refreshment. This is the law that we must ponder day and night. This is the word that nourishes us with the water of life. What a wonderful gift of God!n

Irene Nowell, O.S.B., is a Benedictine of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, and an adjunct professor at St. John—s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Her publications include: Sing a New Song: The Psalms in the Sunday Lectionary and Women in the Old Testament, both published by The Liturgical Press.

Next: Sacraments of Vocation (by Monica Helwig)


Living the Scriptures

Take some practical action to relieve the suffering of the needy in your area—the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the lonely. Consider how this is a fulfillment of the heart of the law: to love God and one another.



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