Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we hear many words of wisdom about the concept of the law and obedience to the law.
In the Book of Sirach, for example, we read, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you” (Sirach 15: 15). In the Psalm, we read, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 119: 1-2).
And in the Gospel passage for today, Jesus reminds us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass form the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 17-19).
As Christians, however, we are called to take a rational approach to law. Unfortunately, many people have had difficulty with the concept of “law” through the centuries. Some have resisted the law and deliberately chosen to disobey the law. Others have taken an opposite extreme by worshiping laws as though laws were gods. When we worship laws, however, our spiritual vision can become so distorted, that we can’t see the forest for the trees. That is what we see in the following story.
In the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century, there lived a man named Arthur Conan Doyle. In addition to being a physician, he was also a masterful writer of murder mysteries. He is most famous for creating the fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, a private detective who had amazing powers of reasoning to solve even the most baffling of cases. His faithful assistant, Dr. Watson, always tried very hard to help Sherlock solve the mysteries, but poor Dr. Watson continually failed in his efforts.
This story takes place in merry old England. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip. After setting up camp, they enjoyed a good meal and a fine bottle of wine and then went to sleep in their tent.
Sometime during the night, Sherlock Holmes woke, nudged Dr. Watson, and said, “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
“I see millions and millions of stars,” replied Watson.
“And what does that tell you?” asked Sherlock.
“Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I figure that the time is approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant parts of his creation. Meteorologically, I suspect that it will be a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”
“Watson,” replied Holmes, “you are an idiot! When I look up and see the stars in the nighttime sky, I see that someone has stolen our tent while we were sleeping!”
Like Dr. Watson, you and I sometimes miss the most obvious things we should focus on when examining God’s law and how we should apply it in our daily lives. When we lose vision, we can wander in winding paths that get us nowhere.
From the Scripture passages of today, and from the story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, we can glean many things. Here are just three.
First, laws are norms that are written down. Norms are principles or standards of conduct. The purpose of laws should be to help us live in an orderly world, making our lives easier. By having agreed-upon laws, we become free from continually having to make decisions in our daily lives. For example, we have a law that says we should stop our car when the traffic light is red. Because we know this, and because everyone agrees on this, we don’t have to decide what to do every time we approach a red traffic light. In the spiritual life, laws help us keep on track toward sainthood, our ultimate goal.
Second, we always need to distinguish the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The “letter of the law” refers to the strict and exact language with which the law is written. The “spirit of the law,” on the other hand, refers to the reason the law was made in the first place.
In days long ago, hospitals used to have a rule that all visitors needed to be out of the hospital by 8 p.m. That rule was the “letter of the law.” The reason it was put into place was to allow patients to get sufficient rest. That reason is called the “spirit of the law.” Nurses discovered, however, that often patients – especially children – would become hysterical and inconsolable when their parents would leave for the night. When this happened, the patients not only did not get rest, they only made their conditions worse. Thus, though the letter of the law was observed, the spirit of the law was violated.
This brings us to number three. On our spiritual journey, we must always determine the spirit of the law and follow that. For example, during Lent, Catholic Christians give up meat on Fridays. The purpose of this is to make a sacrifice, to show that the spirit is stronger than the body. So a person who gives up eating a one-dollar hamburger on Friday during Lent, and substitutes a fifty-dollar lobster tail dinner with champagne in its place, is violating the spirit of the law.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on how we see divine law. How does it help us on our spiritual journeys?
And that is the good news I have for you on this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: “Sherlock’s tent,” www.hotsermons.com.