An elderly monk, Father Benedict, was returning to his monastery from a journey. With him was a young novice, Brother Ardens. It had been raining and the road was muddy. When they came to a dip in the road still covered with water, they found a beautiful young girl standing there afraid to proceed, lest her beautiful long dress be soiled. “Come, dear,” Father Benedict said when he saw her predicament. “I’ll carry you.” He picked the girl up in his arms and carried her across to higher ground. She thanked him, and the two monks walked on in silence.
When they reached the monastery, Brother Ardens felt he had to say something about the incident he had witnessed. “Monks are supposed to keep away from women, especially from beautiful young girls. How could you pick up in your arms that girl we met on the road?”
“Dear Brother Ardens,” the older monk replied, “I put that girl down as soon as we reached dry ground. You have carried her in your thoughts right into the monastery.”
The young novice was like the Pharisees in the gospel reading of today: zealous, as many young people are, and determined to see all the rules and regulations carefully observed. The ardent young monk never realized that this could mean failing in something even more important: helping someone in need.
Two of our readings today are about rules and regulations. In the first reading Moses tells the people “not to add to God’s law or subtract from it.” He also tells them that the ten commandments, which embody God’s law, are a privilege and a gift. “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” The commandments are not a fence to hem people in. They are ten signposts pointing the way to fulfilment and happiness.
This view of God’s law as a special privilege is central to Jewish religion. It was Jesus’ view: imparted to him at home by Mary and Joseph, and in the synagogue school at Nazareth. In our gospel reading Jesus accuses the Pharisees of perverting God’s law. “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” The Pharisees were not bad people. They were good people, and deeply religious. Their failure in regard to God’s law is common to religious people – ourselves included. Jesus’ rebuke to these Pharisees is not just long ago and far away. It remains a warning for to us today.
Religious people (and that means us) can pervert God’s law in the two ways indicated by Moses in our first reading: by adding to it, or by subtracting from it. Those who subtract from the law are concerned only with fulfilling their “minimum obligation.” They are always asking: “Do I have to?” That is a child’s question, not an adult’s. Even the tone of voice in which it is asked shows its immaturity.
Catholics who go through life asking, “Do I have to?” know all their minimum obligations by heart. They even know (or think they know) how late they can come to Sunday Mass, and how early they can leave, and still have it “count.” There is one thing, however, which these minimum-obligation Catholics do not know: joy. If your primary concern is finding out how little you need to do for God and his church, then you will experience these minimum obligations not as light, but as heavy burdens. Why is that?
People who concentrate on minimum obligations are living with God on the fringe of their lives. They don’t realize that as long as we keep God on the fringe, he will always be a threat to us. God will always be trying to move into the center. Show me a person whose religion is a source of joy, and I will show you someone whose life is centered on God.
That is how Jesus lived. Like all Jews, Jesus treasured God’s law: it was at the heart of his personal religion. Can you imagine Jesus asking, “Do I have to?” or being concerned about fulfilling his minimum obligation? He did that automatically. Jesus never asked, “How much to I have to do for God?” He asked instead, “How much can I do?” Jesus was like a person in love. No one in love ever asks, when it is a question of doing something for the beloved, “Do I have to?” People in love are continually looking for new ways to express their love through generosity and self-sacrifice.
What about Moses’ other warning: not to add to God’s law? Who would ever do that, you ask? More people than you might think. We add to God’s law when we think that by going beyond our minimum obligation we can gain extra credit – a rising credit balance in some heavenly bank which God is bound to honor. Extra-credit Catholics forget that, though God is unbelievably generous, he never owes us anything. It’s the other way round. We owe him everything. “When you have done everything you have been commanded to do,” Jesus says (and which of us has?), “say, ‘We are useless servants. We have done no more than our duty’” (Lk 17:10). If concentrating on minimum obligations is the failing of the lax and lazy, thinking we can earn extra credit with God is a failing of those who are specially devout. It is sobering to realize that the people to whom Jesus most often speaks severely in the gospels are the specially devout.
“You hypocrites,” Jesus says in the gospel. He spoke those words not to open and notorious sinners, but to people who prided themselves on the exact fulfilment of God’s law; who actually went far beyond what the law required. Their error lay in supposing that this gave them a claim on God which he was bound to honor. We never have a claim on God. God has a claim on us, and it is an absolute claim.
God’s love and our salvation are not things we can earn. They are God’s free gift. God bestows these gifts on us not because we are good enough, but because he is so good that he wants to share his love with us. God’s law is not the list of rules and regulations that we must first obey before God will love us and bless us. God’s law is, rather, the description of our grateful response to the love and blessing which God has already bestowed on us out of sheer generosity.
Does this mean that there is no “just reward” for those who do try to obey God’s law? Of course not. God’s reward for faithful service is certain. Jesus tells us this in many gospel passages. He warns us, however, that those who try to calculate their reward in advance will be disappointed. The people who are most richly rewarded – who are literally bowled over by God’s generosity – are those who never stop to reckon up their reward because they are so keenly aware of how far short they still fall of God’s standard.
If we want to experience God’s generosity (and is there anyone here who does not?), we must learn to stand before God with empty hands. Then we shall experience the joy of Mary, who in her greatest hour, when she learned – astonished, fearful, and confused – that she was to be the mother of God’s Son, responded with words which the church repeats in its public prayer every evening:
“The hungry he has given every good thing,
while the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk 1:53).