To get on with another person one needs to know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable with that person. In other words, there are rules about how to behave. There are rules, sometimes explicitly spelt out but more often simply implied, in every relationship and in belonging to any group, society or community. Basic to the Old Testament is the idea that God gave Israel the rules by which to live. This was the Torah or Law. But behind every law lies an intention or reason. Respect for the law properly requires that people do more than simply keep the letter of the law, they keep the spirit that lies behind it. This is what Jesus emphasized. He called people to go beyond just keeping the letter of the Torah; he emphasized living in the spirit that underlay the Law. In Matthew 5, Jesus applied this to laws about murder, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation and love of neighbour. When we internalize the spirit behind the law, we keep it, not because it is imposed from outside but because we want to do it. When we are separated from God, the divine law remains external to us, and we are likely to twist it to suit our convenience. However, when that separation is overcome and God, the Holy Spirit, dwells within, we seek to live by the spirit of God’s rules. We want to live the life of love to God and to our fellow human beings that is at the heart of it all. When we fail, we admit our error, realize that God’s love and forgiveness still surrounds us and seek to be more responsive to the divine Spirit that is within.
- What are some of the unwritten rules about conduct in polite society?
- What did Jesus have to say about the spirit that underlies the commandment in Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder”?
- What did Jesus say about God’s intention in giving laws about adultery and divorce?
- Try expressing Matthew 5:33-48 in your own words, giving voice to the intention that underlay them.