Gospel Reflection for July 5, 2020, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

For many of the contemporaries of Jesus, the Law of Moses was seen as a burden. It wasn’t, perhaps so much the Law itself as it was its many interpretations and impositions that the Law that became burdensome. Many, especially those who tended to be more scrupulous, were obsessed with following the details of the Law and all of its applications. Others tended to follow the law at its minimum and were less concerned about the minutiae.

For the most part, when Christians think of the Law we focus on the Decalogue, and rightly so. These 10 words from God, enshrined on the stone tablets handed down through Moses provide the synopsis. However, the Mosaic Law consists of 603 other laws along with the various Talmudic commentaries and the Targums, many of which developed around the time of Jesus.

We are hearing from a section of Matthew’s Gospel where there is a growing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. In the midst of this tension Jesus observes that the Lord is revealing to the “little ones” that which, while the learned and so-called wise might have longed for, he does not reveal to them. Here Jesus is not pointing out that God chooses not to reveal himself to the Pharisees and Sadducees but emphasizing, as he often does, that they have set up mental blocks to the possibility of seeing or hearing the works of God in Jesus. Jesus reveals the father to those whose hearts are open to receive his Word and who long for that intimate relationship with God that is the consequence of the Incarnation.

Jesus sets out an appeal to those whose lives are overwhelmed by the demands of the Law – “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

While we often associate this particular passage with a funeral liturgy, the context of this sermon is focused on the easing of the legalistic burden. Jesus calls out to the afflicted and those for whom the constraint of the Law was so heavy that they could barely lift their heads. Jesus, while he does not abandon the Law eases its burden. Certainly, as we understand the mission of Jesus he fulfills the Law thus completing the sacrifices and the restrictions that the Law imposed. While the Apostles will slowly come to understand the role of the Law in the life of the Church, it is not until St. Paul claims that they will come to understand that the burden of the Law is lifted entirely and that they are free to live guided by the Spirit.

The early Christians, particularly those who came over from Judaism, did not all readily give up their focus on the Law. This became a matter of bitter dispute within the nascent church and for a while pitted St. Paul against the other apostles. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persuasion of Paul, and then the consent of St. Peter, the demands of the Law were lifted from the followers of Jesus.

Reflecting this development in the discipline of the Church, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, emphasizes this sense of freedom. Today we hear him say: “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

To live according to the Law is to live according to the flesh. The law has no more power over us. Yet it is not easy for many of us. Though we have never lived under the Law of Moses we live under all sorts of laws and precepts. For some of us, as with the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, the demands of those laws and precepts influence and impact each of us in different ways. We are reminded that, though the various laws and precepts of the Church exist to guide and discipline us, they are never to be seen as merely an end in themselves. Jesus eases our burden by carrying the Cross for us so that we are freed from the burdens of the Law and can live the life of faith.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.