Every game has its own set of rules.
Board games have rules, though they are usually only consulted when someone is trying to cheat. Card games have rules. Every sport has rules. Without them, there would be total chaos.
Imagine we are on a field, ready to play soccer. We hear the whistle, and I run toward the ball as fast as possible, I pick it up with my hands, hold on to it tightly, and I run all the way to the end zone and proclaim I scored a touchdown. You would say to me, “hey Father, you can’t do that.” And I would respond, “You can’t tell me how to play soccer, I refuse to be restricted by your rules and regulations. I do whatever I want. I choose to play soccer this way.”
The modern world invites us to rebel against any rules, regulations, or commandments. We are told to express our individuality and to do as we wish. My truth is mine, and yours is yours. You do you, and I do me.
Yet, going back to sports, rules and regulations allow us to enjoy whatever sport we choose play. The rules don’t restrict us or take anything away from us or the game. Rather, they help us have fun!
Psalm 119 is baffling to the modern mind, yet here it is:
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
Be good to your servant, that I may live
and keep your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
Instruct me, O LORD, in the way of your statutes,
that I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.
In the Gospel passage, we experience Jesus as a lawgiver. In the Old Testament, God gave the law to Israel through Moses; in the New Testament, it is Jesus who gives a new law that goes further in love than the old law. Don’t just refrain from killing, don’t even get angry at your brother! Don’t just be faithful to your spouse, do not even look at another with lust! Don’t just avoid lies, don’t swear and don’t deceive!
The commandments given by God keep us on track – I remember my religion teacher in high school drawing a picture on the board. On one end of the board was a castle symbolizing heaven. On the other end, were we, the students. There was a yellow brick road connecting us to the castle, but there was another path that got off the yellow brick road into a dark forest, on and off. He said, “God gives us everything we need to stay on the yellow brick road, free from dangers and detours. It’s your choice to remain on the yellow brick road or to take dangerous detours.”
God gives us His law and His commandments not to restrict us or to take away out liberty, but rather, He does so to help us live our lives to the fullest. Though sin promises freedom from any constraints: I can do whatever I want! Sin actually chains us down. True freedom is found in God. In choosing what is good and right.
In following God’s commandments, we do have to consider two things: the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The letter of the law means doing exactly as instructed: “treat your neighbor as you’d like to be treated.” The spirit of the law means that the heart is attuned to the reason for the commandment, “I help this elderly lady cross the street because I recognize her need and respond – not because I want to impress the young lady I’m dating.”
It is possible to follow the letter of the law without internalizing the purpose. Another example: One may refrain from eating meat every Friday of Lent as the law says, without ever grasping the reason why. It remains a rule to follow and never becomes a matter of the heart. The reason we give up meat is to unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ by offering a small sacrifice ourselves, giving up meat. Realizing this takes a commandment into the heart. It’s not just “something we do,” but something that unites the heart to Christ. Some people remain technical and legal: they don’t eat meat on Friday but then feast on lobster or pig out at the parish fish fry. It’s not just about following the law, it’s about keeping it in our hearts.
We can confidently proclaim that we are blessed by following the Lord’s commandments – and not restricted. We pray that we will be able to follow the path God has set forth for us, and to do so confidently that His way leads to fulfillment and joy in this life and in the next.