Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Laying Down The Law Out Of Love

All responsible parents have rules in their households. They decide how late their children can stay out and what time they should go to bed. They monitor how much time they spend on electronic devices and what they eat. Other rules that parents impose are “don’t run into the road”, “don’t play with matches” and “don’t touch the stove.”

Children often resent the rules their parents impose on them. From their perspective, such rules take away their freedom and limit their choices. They cannot understand why they can’t just go to bed when they want or go wherever they please. Sometimes, they can even think their parents are bullying them or trying to keep them from being happy.

Of course, the rules that parents impose on their children are for their own good. They keep them from getting into dangerous situations, from being hurt or from hurting others. Rules such as not eating before supper ensure that children get adequate nutrition. And deciding what time they go to bed ensures that children get adequate rest. Parents do not make up rules to show them who’s boss or to abuse their authority over them. Rather it is out of loving concern for their children that mothers and fathers set limits on their behavior.

The same is true for God. Like a responsible, loving parent, He has put in place laws that we must follow. These commandments -  “Honor your father and mother”, “Do not kill”, “Do not steal” and all the others - are not God’s way of showing us that He is in control. It is not His way of bullying us or limiting our freedom. Rather, they are expressions of His loving concern for us. Like a caring parent, He reveals His law to us so that we will avoid hurting ourselves and learn how to have full and meaningful lives on this planet He has given us.

In today’s first reading, Sirach tells us that God gives us a choice. We can choose between good and evil. We are all free to make our own decisions. Our Heavenly Father will not force us to keep His commandments. However, we must be aware that there are consequences to our choices. If I choose to keep God’s commandments, then I can expect good things to follow. If I choose to ignore His word and follow my own way, I can expect bad things to follow. Sirach compares the choice to obey or disobey God’s commandments as a choice between water and fire. If I choose to follow His word, then it is like choosing water. I can expect it to refresh and nourish me. However, if I choose fire by disobeying God’s commandments, then I can expect to get burned.

As a society, we often talk about morality as if it it were a matter of opinion or preference. For instance, we might talk about one person being for abortion and another being against it the way we talk about someone preferring chicken to beef. This way of thinking is deeply ingrained in our modern culture and is called “moral relativism.” This is the belief that what is true for you might not be true for me and what is wrong for you might not be wrong for me. For instance, you might judge that it is wrong to cheat on your taxes but I think it is right for me to cheat on my taxes. Obviously, such a position is absurd. A statement cannot be both true and false at the same time. Nonetheless, as a society we have decided to think and behave this way.

However, deciding what is good and bad is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact. It is written into our very nature as rational human beings and baked into the nature of things. In many ways, the moral laws are like the laws of nature and the universe. For instance, in the natural world, there is a law of gravity. “What goes up, must come down.” Now, I can decide that this law is unfair and that it limits my freedom. However, if I try to break it by jumping off a skyscraper, I will learn very quickly that there are severe consequences to disobeying that law. Because I hate the law of gravity so much, I might circulate a petition that Parliament repeal it. I might even bring my petition to the Supreme Court. However, no one can change the law of gravity, no matter how inconvenient it is, because it is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact.

In the same way, the basic principle that I should do good and avoid evil is a matter of fact. No matter how hard we try, saying that what is good is evil and what is evil is good will not make it so. Many people might believe that it is good to steal or good to kill. Again, that does not make it so. Even if governments make evil acts legal, that still does not make them moral. No amount of legislation can ever make slavery or genocide just causes. In the same way, no amount of legal precedents can make the killing of the innocent a good thing. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. There is nothing we can do or say to change that fact.

Just as scientists come to an understanding of the laws of nature through science, so we can come to an understanding of the moral law by the use of our reason and the exercise of our conscience. The pressing moral questions of our day are not matters of faith as much as they are matters of clear reason. Just as people of different faith traditions and even atheists can agree with the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” so people of different faith traditions and even atheists should be able to agree through the use of reason that abortion, physician assisted suicide and the death penalty are wrong.

Therefore, in debating these issues, we are not trying to impose our faith on others. Rather, as people of faith, we are trying to convince our fellow citizens that the way to a prosperous, just society is by respecting the right to life of all human beings. Though this principle is strengthened by our Judeo-Christian belief that all persons are made in the image and likeness of God, it is a conviction that all people of sound reason and good will can embrace.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them.” Jesus reveals the law of God to us not to deny us our freedom but so that we can use that freedom well. He promises us a full and abundant life if we follow His word. It is out of love for us that He teaches us the way we should live. As God’s children, let us embrace the commandments He has revealed to us and ask for the strength to carry them out. Furthermore, let us take those commandments into our world which has lost its way so that our society can finally know true justice and peace which can only come from obeying our Heavenly Father. 

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