In our first reading last week, we had Moses asking the people, who is your God? The Lord? Or the gods of the surrounding people? The people chose the Lord as their God. Today’s first reading can be seen as a consequence of that choice. Choosing to follow God means nothing if God’s commands mean nothing. This is the close connection between following God and the gift of the law.
The experience of the law has always been problematic theologically. Many spiritual writers including St Paul in the New Testament have pointed out its ambiguous effect. Yes, in drawing a line in the sand, in marking out right and wrong, in defining cultural practices, the law provides guidance. However, in the very same action, the law points out how to cross the line. What previously might have occurred in ignorance and so be accidental, now becomes sinful. The law in pointing out what is right cannot help but point out what is wrong. In this sense, not only does it guide, it also inaugurates the very possibility of transgression. We see this famously in the story of Adam and Eve.
The experience of transgression is an odd one and fundamentally irrational. It is bound up in the idea of original sin, the ability of free human beings to choose their own destruction, to wilfully choose meaninglessness over meaning, darkness over light. Our readings give us a few examples of what this looks like.
Our first reading has Moses saying do not add to, nor subtract from, the law. This points out a deeper level of transgression than merely crossing a line. This is the transgression of authority. The experience of law and especially the experience of positive, human-made law alert one to the need to govern oneself. Everyone needs a rule of life. Societies need laws. Someone needs to decide on which side of the road we drive. This is the proper context for the concept of autonomy, which just means self-governing, nomos meaning law in Ancient Greek.
However, the experience of autonomy, the experience of the power of self-rule can tempt one to extend this jurisdiction to things outside of our control. We can begin to think that we can rewrite natural law, even divine law, rewrite those things like the rules of logic, how we think about what we should do next, basic biological realities, even the divine commandments. The experience of personal and political power can tempt us to act beyond our limits. To change the things that underwrite the very possibility of any change at all.
A really good example of this is a famous definition that came out of the Supreme Court of the USA. Three judges on that court attempted to define the experience of autonomy, the fundamental reality of making sense of one’s life. These days we might call it being true to oneself. They wrote: At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
This formulation became quite famous and has been used much since. But any close examination of it reveals it to be ridiculous, almost like an advertising slogan raised to the level of fundamental principle.
What does it mean to define meaning? If I take defining meaning seriously, doesn’t that mean I first have to define what defining means and then what meaning means? And as soon as I start to think about that, I realise I have stepped off a cliff. There is nothing underneath me, just an abyss of infinite recursion.
This definition of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of mystery, evacuates each of these terms of the very majesty that the definition cashes in on. This attempt at profundity turns out to be extraordinarily shallow. It saws off the very branch we are sitting on, the branch of experience, of language, of thought, of reality. Reminds me of a great line from the film Top Gun: the ego is writing cheques the body can’t cash.
In fact, it is stupid ideas like this that are causing problems throughout the Western World. We see governments undermining the basic principles of human flourishing, while at the same time wondering why no-one is listening to them. They create citizens who believe they are free to decide the very nature of reality and then wonder why they won’t follow the law, or indeed act for the common good, the understanding of which the elite have systematically tried to destroy.
Classically, human law has always been nested within the natural law which in turn is nested within the divine law, kind of like those Russian dolls or those sets of coffee tables that always seem to be on special. Humanity can only command what is possible, and so human-made law, what is called positive law, find its place within the context of what it is that defines possibility. And these laws that define possibility, the natural law, only exist because God has created them, and so they find their place within the divine law. This is the proper place of humanity: within creation, and creation within God’s plan.
Our first reading is therefore alerting us to the danger of thinking we can change what are the very possibilities of human flourishing. Jesus, however, I think goes further than this. He is pointing out that even in following certain laws, we can do so with an attitude that is basically the same as legislating ourselves as equal to God. This is the attitude of experts who know the game so well that they have forgotten the point. For them, the rules do not point to fullness of life, to the promise of the land and security, as Moses says in our first reading. For these experts, the rules point to their intellectual or moral superiority: in being able to understand all the rules and make them work to their advantage. They’re better than the supposed poor sods who must simply obey.
Perhaps then our readings are asking us to think about our basic attitude towards God’s law given to us in Christ and handed on by his Church. When I think about God’s law, am I thinking in terms of transgression or am I thinking in terms of transcendence? Do the laws fence me in and so tempt me to jump the fence, or do they promise me the fullness of life, communion with God and with my neighbours, and so encourage
obedience? And given my answer to this: what image do I have of God? One who constrains me irrationally, or one who teaches and leads me into greener pastures?
Let’s pray then for a deep sense of God’s love in our lives, so that we can trust God’s law to bring us to that fullness of life, that security of the land, so that we may in turn reveal this to the world, and so together enter into the fullness of life that we can now only dimly imagine.