God’s Law does not constrict us, but liberates us
Just recently I took part in a meeting at which a Jewish friend spoke about the Book of Exodus. The discussion, which was part of an occasional course called “A Walking Tour through the Bible”, was extremely interesting, and as often happens, it crystallised certain thoughts of my own about just what Exodus has to tell us.
First of all, Exodus is the story of the passage from slavery to freedom. The Children of Israel escape the tyranny of Pharaoh and they encounter God at Sinai, who gives them the Law. The Law is not to be understood as just another form of tyranny – rather the Law represents a freedom that is in marked contrast to the bondage of Egypt. Nowadays we seem to think of any law as an imposition, but this is not the case of God’s Law. God’s Law does not constrict us, but liberates us, for within the boundaries of the Law we find a place to flourish; outside the law there is just anarchy.
The next thing that occurred to me is that the Law given by God is a sign of His love for us all; moreover, in keeping the Law, we show our love for God. So, if we want to pare away the impact of the Law, we are effectively asking God to love us less. If we see the love and mercy of God as distinct from His Law, we are making a grave mistake; rather we should see the love and mercy of God as incarnate in His Law. To reject the Law is to reject a sign, an important sign, of God’s love.
Of course, no Catholic could possibly reject the Law, that is the Ten Commandments and the ethical laws given in Exodus. But there is certainly a tendency is contemporary Catholicism that resembles the laxism of the past, a tendency to look for loopholes in the Law, and a tendency to explore avenues of escape from what the Law demands of us. This goes with a less than robust proclamation of the Law as a challenge to us all to love our fellow human beings, and to love God. In an age that is always talking of targets, some want to set the bar lower and lower. None of this accords with what the Psalmist has to say: “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Psalm 119:97). When was the last time you heard a sermon that praised the beauty of God’s Law? After all, the Law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul (Psalm 19:7).
Can we have too much law? Well, we can certainly have too much human regulation, as the Gospels make clear; but the Law of the Lord is a different matter entirely! As Matthew 5:18 makes clear, not a jot or tittle of the Law will pass away. As for the alternative to God’s Law – the culture of everyone for themselves, and the sovereignty of the individual will unshackled by any reference to truth – that is hardly an attractive picture.
I am fully aware that all of these thoughts are to be found in the text of Veritatis Splendor, the great letter of Saint John Paul II. I must reread it soon!
Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. On Twitter he is @ALucieSmith