. . . . Reflection on the 6th Sunday of the Year, A, 2020
By Innocent Nwafor
I want to begin today's reflection with a quote from Salman Rushdie. “Two things form the bedrock of any open society – freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don't have those things, you don't have a free country.”
The Jews as a people have known this for a very long time. That is why the Torah (commonly called The Law and the Prophets) is central to the Jewish existence as a people. At the time of Jesus the Pharisees have studied and elaborated a lot on the various laws and codes of conduct, the 'dos' and 'don'ts' of practically every facet of daily living as contained in the Torah. When they talk about the law, they do not only refer to the Ten Commandments but to the entire Torah, containing the details of Israel's covenant relationship with YAHWEH their God. There are, for instance, about 613 Jewish rules covering instructions about food, what to be eaten and what to be avoided, about punishments for various offences and various rites of worship. Of this number, 248 are positive codes, corresponding to the number of bones and main organs in the human body. The remaining 365 are negative laws corresponding to the number of days in the solar year. This looks as if the observance of a positive code serves to nurture the organs of one's body and strengthening the bones or bedrocks that give stability to the society. When on the other hand, one commits an offence; one is shut-cutting the months thereby destroying God's own creation.
Jesus too has a great deal of respect for the rule of law as we are going to see. His vision is indeed to make the Jewish Laws more perfect by introducing the right spirit with which they are to be observed for a better society where the love of God and neighbor are central. Christ's attempt to improve the law began to make some leaders, especially the Pharisees, suspicious. They thought that Jesus and his followers were out to destroy the customs and traditions of their forefathers, which made them unique among all nations and had shaped their lives for many generations.
Matthew, former tax collector called Levi, one of the four evangelists, a Jew from Capernaum by origin, undertook the task of disabusing the fears of his fellow Jews and to show, indeed, that Jesus is the promised Messiah who comes to 'fulfill' and not to 'abolish' the law.
Certainly, what Jesus has embarked upon is a difficult task. It is about scrutinizing a long standing practice. Naturally, such scrutiny would precipitate strong resistance; especially when it is coming from a person of hitherto no known influential background. Little wonder his own people scoffed and wondered: “Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matt 13:55).
2. Why the talk on observance of Law at this time
The gospel of today is a continuation of that of last Sunday dealing with further elaborations of the Sermon on the Mount. It presents us the attitudes that guarantee the happiness of the individual as well as enhancing the common good of the community. After dealing with the motif of 'salt' and 'light', Jesus shifts attention to the task of coaching his followers on the creative and meaningful ways of observing the Jewish codes of conducts. Against those who suspect that he has come to establish an entirely new world order by doing away with the Jewish law – the Old Testament, Jesus made it very clear that he has not come to annul the Law and the Prophets, but to perfect them (Matt 5:17). As long as heaven and earth last, not even an iota, meaning least part of the law will be removed. The Law will always remain relevant, for it is the pathway to perfection. It is that perfection he has come to bring. It looks as if Jesus is speaking to us Nigerians today.
3. Jesus Christ is that fulfillment
A closer reading of today's gospel shows that Jesus was not only commenting on the Law and Prophets but was at the same time fulfilling them. The tone of his language points to this: “You have heard that it was said…, but I tell you….” In that way he was showing that he holds the key to the perfect interpretation of that law. He speaks authoritatively to the astonishment of many who observed that he was not speaking like the scribes (Mark 1:22).
Jesus Christ had no doubts regarding his mission of fulfilling the law. “You search the Scripture because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…. If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5: 39, 46). St Paul also reminds his Corinthian community that “…all the promises of God find their Yes in him (Christ). That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen, giving glory to God” (2 Cor 1:20).
If Christ is the fulfillment of the law, then his followers are asked to demonstrate their love for Him by the way they obey his commandments. “Whoever accepts and keeps my commandments is the one who loves me. If he loves me, he will also be loved by my Father. I, too shall love him and show myself clearly to him” (John 14:21).
Here lies the secret of the Christian joy, the secret of our sanctification and glorification. The Christian should be able to draw strength from this invitation to keep the commandments as a sign of our love for Christ; but not just obedience to the commandments, but also to the law of the land. Christians are thereby encouraged to live true to this challenge of being law abiding. This involves daily dying to the self for the common good of all. A candle light burns the wax out to lighten up the room. Being the light and salt to the world is not different. The next is being law abiding. Hard talk! Isn't it!
4. Being obedient to the law, in Nigeria too?
What does being obedient to Christ mean? Shall I be obedient too to people in power, even when they come to positions of power fraudulently? St Peter responds: “For the Lord's sake, respect all human authority: the king as chief authority, the governors as sent by him to punish evil doers and to encourage those who do good. And God wants you to do good so that you may silence those foolish men who ignorantly criticize you. Live in a good manner that befits your freedom, but not as if this freedom was a license for vice; live as servants of God. Show reverence to each person, love your brothers and sisters, fear God and show respect to the emperor” (1Peter 2:13-17). Wau!
St Peter is lucky to have made these statements and is gone. If he were still here there are lots of questions for him to clarify. If we meet him in heaven, perhaps we shall still have some discussions on these. Meanwhile, I encourage us to live in good manners with one another as evidence of our freedom from colonialism. Let us begin by living like brothers and sisters in our families, villages, towns, in Igbo land and the nation at large. Sometimes, it is not easy to do this considering the state of our nation today. But then, I just imagine Jesus Christ, the King of kings standing before Pilate in a total act of selflessness and non violence. And I hear his words, “come to me, all you who labour and are burdened (and worried), I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves; for my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt 11:28-30). How often do I find myself trapped in a hold-up on the road, where everybody becomes lawless, the army, the police, the politician and if you want to demonstrate cool-headedness by way of keeping to what the law of right reason and order stipulates, you look foolish. At that moment one feels like, “if you cannot beat them join them.” Who still hears the voice of Christ 'learn from me…' in that circumstance? That is the time we are brought before Pilate to bear witness to the truth. Our brother in faith, St Paul encourages us: “Let everyone be subject to the authorities. For there is no authority that does not come from God, and the existing ones have been established by God” (Rom 13:1). “Really, the ones in Nigeria inclusive?” I can feel you reacting. Don't mind. Here we need to pray with the apostles: “Lord, increase our faith.”
I know that people will be wondering that no distinction is made, so far, between natural, civil, church and divine law; just and unjust law. Yes, I intentionally leave that to the professors of civil and canon laws and their students to sort out in the classroom discussions or seminars. And if any feels like, s/he can share with us in one of the editions of this media. Meanwhile, we are concentrating on the Christian attitude to law in general. That said, our position is that as Christians, we shall be courageous to champion the course of observing the rule of law. But then, we must be ready to deal with our anger tantrums.
5. How do we stand in reality in this respect?
Today, Jesus is not only asking us whether we have engaged in physical killing of fellow human being. He is helping us to consider how often we have damaged other peoples' names through lies, slander, gossip, through abusive languages and unchecked anger tantrums. Again, he is not only asking us how big our offerings on Sundays Masses are, but whether the offering truly depict the condition of our heart before God and in relation to our fellow human being. If the offerings and our hearts are not in agreement then we should drop them and get our hearts purified first and then bring our offerings. Otherwise we are being mere hypocritical and deceitful.
In my head, a lot of questions and images are begging for attention. How can we keep to the rule in a situation where it is no longer very evident that the law makers who make the rules are law-abiding; that the– the Army, the Police, the Civil Defense Corps called Law-enforcement agents are law-abiding; that the members of the Executive arm of our government who should be implementing the laws are law-abiding; that the road signs and traffic lights are obeyed by those who mount them.
What about the drivers on the high ways? Are there rules of engagement? Do the ideas of 'speed lane' and 'slow lanes' make sense any more to Nigerian drivers? Heavy duty Lorries, are they free normally to ply any of the lanes on the high way? In a junction or cross road, who has the right of the way first? Do people still go to Driving School at all before driving? If yes, what is being taught there? Is there still penalty for driving offences? In whose pocket does the money get into if there is still payment for offences? Does the Zebra-crossing make any meaning for our road users? Are there pedestrians or walk ways on our roads? Are speed limits observed where they are available?
Today, our government tells us that they are fighting corruption. How corrupt-free are they? How sincere are they? Killings upon killings of innocent citizens take place every day. Life goes on normally. A saying has been introduced of Nigeria. “Everything can happen in Nigeria and anything cannot be done.” Those in the Ministries, in the Schools, how corrupt-free are they? Are these corrupt Officials and lawless drivers Christians? Are they priests and religious? Where then is the Christian who will show the light?
Do we still see breach of law and order as sinful? When we breach the law, do we still feel bad? Are we contributing to lighten the world or to darken it? Are we still salting the earth or are we already thrown down and being trodden upon by passers-by? At what level are we in our practice of Christianity: still toddlers being driven by instincts, or matured being guided by right reason and spirit of Christ?
6. What is the role of a Christian in the face of all these?
“…go into the world and proclaim the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). A popular Igbo dismissal hymn aptly captures the message: Pubanu ndi otu Christi Aja Missa agwugo, gaba nu n'ime uwa k'unu we doo ya aso, unu bu ihe nk'uwa unu bu Umu Chineke, gosi nu mmadu nile eziokwu nke Chukwu. We are called to go into the world to sanctify it. May we not forget that we are being lead in a triumphal following of Christ and through us Christ wants to spreads the knowledge of Him everywhere like an aroma. We are Christ's fragrance rising up to God, and perceived by those who are saved as well as by those who are lost” (2 Cor 2: 14f).
This has a joyful and positive mission mandate rather than defensive approach to mission. We need to embrace it. Let us drop the attitude of living our Christian faith defensively and in fear. A football team that chose to play defensive from beginning has no plan of winning any tournament. If we spend all-night vigil in prayer and when there is a hold-up on the road we cannot patiently wait for say, 30 minutes, what is the sense of the all night vigil? Warding off evil? If we spend two hours in a chapel of Adoration and we cannot work hard to make food available on the table for our children, what is the value of that long prayer? Is this not flight from one's parental responsibility? We can see that obedience of law does not only entail avoidance of offences but also doing the good I obliged to do in order to contribute to the common good of the community and in so doing join in renewing the face of the earth. Peace be with you!