Among my happy memories from the playground at St. Charles School during my elementary school days is foursquare. We had a lot of fun with foursquare, and sometimes you’d wait all recess in line it was so popular. There was one guy though, who will remain unnamed here. He was a friend of mine. Well, he was a friend before foursquare. He was infamous for making his own rules when he got to the king spot. All of the sudden, every rule you knew about foursquare was out the window. He would tell, “Cherry bomb” or “Around the World” or “Corners” or “Penguins” and a host of other things. Those were code words that meant new rules, changed rules, thrown out rules. I hated when people would do that! Why?? Because you don’t get to just make your own rules! Can you imagine if the rules of chess, or basketball, or football were just thrown out willy-nilly? If someone decided that the king in chess could all the sudden do what the queen could, or that a bishop could be a rook if he felt like one? It would be ridiculous. And we get that, mostly.
Except with God. With him, sometimes we expect that the rules should change, that God should make the game more fun, or get with the times, or make new allowances for the issues of our day, that he should chuck out things that we don’t like or find easy to follow. Fortunately for us, God’s rules are here to stay! Today’s readings invite us to celebrate that God is so good that he gives us rules, commandments, precepts to live by, and that they don’t change with the winds or by who shouts the loudest.
And we Catholics love His rules, His commandments! Why? Because they are our road map–our map to happiness, wholeness, and heaven! I really think God looked down on earth and said, “Huh…I think they’d be happier if they didn’t kill each other. I’ll make a rule. I bet they’d be happier if they didn’t cheat on each other; I’ll make a rule about that.” And all the rules handed down through the generations–the commandments, precepts, and even every drop of ink in canon law–it’s all from the Holy Spirit and it’s all at the service of love. Perhaps that’s why our psalm goes as it does today. We chanted, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!” Like most of the psalms, Ps 119 was written to praise God for the commandments. We love the laws, the commandments, the mandates of God!
Jesus talks about the rules in our gospel today, too, and my goodness he has some words for us. He has some stern words for those who compromise on even “the smallest part of the smallest letter of the law,” or who compromise on even “the least of the commandments” and teach others to do so. Sometimes I don’t think we get how high the stakes are. Easier to pretend it will all be okay, no matter what we do, right? Easier to simply presume on God’s mercy. It is easier to do that. But it is also wrong.
Robert Cardinal Sarah, I’m reading a book of his now called God or Nothing. It’s fantastic. He reminds us that we must never seek to “reduce the laws of the Gospel to a minimum,” that we can never “exploit the mercy of God” by throwing out rules and doctrine, for that, he says, would be a “failure of mercy.” True mercy is the pardon that comes after messing up, NOT in seeking to re-fashion the rules to allow for my messed up way of life, to excuse it. As Sirach says it today, no one gets a license to sin.
The rules of the Lord can be hard to live by, but the thing of it is, we are infinitely happier when we follow the commandments, when we live as God invites us to live! There is great wisdom in all the Church’s rules, the wisdom St Paul talks about today. Not only do the divine laws bring us to heaven, but they also help us to taste heaven here on earth. That is not to say they are easy to follow all the time. But my brothers and sisters in Jesus, it is worth it!
Today’s first reading begins: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you.” That says it all. Scripture promises us that we have the power to keep the commandments, we have the power to be good. Often I think we resign ourselves to failure. We think, “I will never overcome this or that thing.” And then we cave every time the temptation arises. God reminds us today: we don’t have to.
In fact, the poet John Milton in Paradise Lost wrote a line I often think about. He wrote that we are “sufficient to stand, yet free to fall.” We do believe that we who are in a state of grace, armed as we are with the Holy Spirit and the power of the Sacraments and the divine intercession from the communion of saints on high–we believe that we are able to stand in the face of whatever comes our way from the devil, we are able to follow God’s laws. And they save us!
Let us thank God for his commandments. Let us live by them faithfully.