In the Gospel for one of the weekday masses not so long ago, there is a passage in which Christ is answering questions from a crowd of people, and one of the questions was “Master, what must I do to be saved?”
What is important here is that a new answer was given to that age-old question, “What must I do to be saved? What is the right way?” And the new answer given by Christ was, “I am”.
For hundreds of centuries before Christ, religious leaders had answered that question, “What is the right way?” by presenting their followers with a list of rights and wrongs, a body of laws to follow. The idea always was that if a person acted in this or that way, then that person was holy and could be sure of salvation.
The years of Christ’s time were a good example of that. Over the centuries, they had developed an extremely complicated and rigorous body of laws.
But for Christians there was to be a new standard to use in judging righteousness. It was not a standard that could be put down on paper. Rather, it was a standard that could only be lodged in the heart. It was to be the action of grace, the word of God, purifying and changing and renewing us from within.
In the Gospel, Christ says that nothing outside of us can make us pure or impure, good or bad. It is what is buried deep within us that does that. It is the pride, the anger, the lust, the jealousy that we carry around inside of us that is the source of evil in the world. And no law, no ritual can eliminate that. Only the change of heart that comes from grace, from God’s life in us, can do that.
Certainly, Christ did not come to do away with the laws and commandments of religion. He simply said they are not nearly enough. The law, the commandments, tells us do not kill, do not steal, honour your neighbour’s marriage and so on.
Most of the time it is not so difficult to avoid all of these things. But Christ gave us the Beatitudes. He said, “Be humble …. be just, be charitable, be merciful, be gentle, be forgiving, be respectful”.
Ah, now those things are difficult. Compared to the morality of Christ, keeping the commandments is the very least that is expected of us.
So, I suppose there will always be some sort of tension between law and grace. But it is a healthy tension that prompts us not only to look outward at what we do, but inward at what we are. Fr Andrew