Have we ever had a conversation with a non-Catholic, and got the sense that they thought we were modern day Pharisees? To them we seem like Pharisees, because we have many customs and traditions, many “laws”. If we combined all the laws of the Church into books and stacked those books from the ground up, that stack might be as tall as Fr. Roy. =) Today Jesus is reminding us that church law, church customs and traditions, are not on the same level as the Law of Love instituted by God. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for allowing their own changeable laws to blind them to God’s very presence before them. The external devotions they invented, like ritual washing, were supposed to help them draw close to God. But when God drew close to them, becoming Christ Jesus, they did not recognize him. Do the laws of the Church keep us from drawing close to and following Christ?
Think about the Sacrament of Confession. The Church has a law that we should confess our sins at least once per year. Is this part of Divine Law? In James chapter 5 verse 16 we read, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” This being Sacred Scripture, the Holy Word of God, it is part of Divine Law, God wants us to confess our sins. And to who? To one another to be sure, that is, to the person we wronged, but not only to the person we wronged. The very next sentence reads, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Who is the righteous man and why is St. James talking about his great power in the context of confession? God chooses for us righteous men to stand in Christ’s place and exercise his power to forgive sins. So, it is part of Divine Law, that we confess our sins not only to one another but also to priests of Jesus Christ whom God has chosen and provided, but why does the Church say we have to do it “at least once per year?” Is the Church being like a Pharisee and adding laws which blind us to God’s merciful love? No, it seems pretty clear that the Church has meditated and prayed about the very minimum we need to confess our sins in order to satisfy God’s command. Obviously the Church believes that each of us have at least one tiny sin per year, and she is trying to help us remember the shape of God’s mercy… forgiveness through confession. Christ’s Bride, the Church, is compassionately keeping her eye on Christ, and she is trying to help us keep our eyes on him as well.
If we look at the book of church law, called the Code of Canon Law, we read in the last canon, “The salvation of souls is the supreme law in the Church, and it is to be kept before [every] one’s eyes.” The salvation of souls, this is the Church’s highest law, it is the mission given to the apostles, it is the mission the apostles gave to their successors our bishops. Christ has given to the Church, even to us, this mission. Twice in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says to the twelve, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” So for the good of our souls, to increase the possibility of our salvation, the Church has bound us to celebrating the Sacraments, and to celebrating them in a certain way. Bound on earth as it is in heaven, Christ desires for us to be obedient to his Bride, the Church, until he comes again. She keeps her eyes focused on Christ and his mission, and through her laws, she helps keep our eyes on him and his mission as well. Christ’s very own Holy Spirit dwells within the Church, and according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, her own laws and customs may change. She may change them to better help the Divine Law to penetrate our hearts and to better shape our lives to be lives of God’s love.
God’s love for us has a shape and a form, it is the shape of Christ Jesus; he is the Divine Law made flesh, the human Word of God. Today we hear him list out things that we should not do. There are three groupings of things, and each grouping begins with a sexual sin. The first grouping ends with the most serious sin, which is murder. The second grouping ends with the sin of deceit. And the third ends with the sin of foolishness. But again, each grouping begins with a sexual sin, these are: unchastity, adultery, and licentiousness. These are sins of lust where we place objects of the world, pleasures of the body higher than God. These groupings are telling us, once we lust after things of the flesh or even things of the fallen human heart, we are led to other sins. Lust is a gateway sin which separates us from God.
The Church has tried to instruct us on proper sexual behavior, but we do not always listen. Sometimes we tell the Church to stay out of our bedrooms, but obviously, given the sins which Jesus lists for us today, we need to actively work against sexual immorality through God’s grace. What are some of these sins, obviously pornography even when watched by married couples, all relations outside of a proper marriage, but even the relations between married couples, the Church says they must be celebrated in a “human way,” a human way. What is a human way is too big a subject to begin now, but know that every marital act between a husband and wife must be unitive and procreative.
Love has a shape which Christ defines, and his Bride is the authoritative teacher of this shape. She is not a modern day Pharisee, she is the only institution in the world with her eyes firmly fixed on Christ and his mission to save souls. Through her rituals and laws she helps us keep our eyes fixed on him as well. Let us be confident in this, and seek out her instruction with fidelity and love.