Monthly Archives: September 2012

Interpreting the Law

How must we interpret this law of God?  How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”  Listen to Paul:  “The whole law,” he declares, “is summed up in love”; and again: “Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” the law of Christ–does anything other than love more fittingly describe it?  Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother or sister in trouble.

But we are told that this law is manifold.  Why?  Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues.  It begins with two commands, but soon embraces many more.  Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects.  “Love is patient,” he says, “and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.” Moral Reflections on Job by Gregory the Great.

I ran across this passage earlier this week in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. St. Gregory makes a number of powerful observations that help us understand Holy Scripture.  Principally, he enjoins us to read the Torah (the Law) through the lens of love.  Jesus taught that all of the law and all of the prophets hung on the commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Matt. 22:40.

In Jesus’ day (just as in ours), some argued that the scriptures should be read as an exclusionary document.  Thus, many (lepers, those with physical infirmities, women, and outsiders) were excluded from the Temple.  Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What have you done to help them inside?” Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus brought many back within the circle of faith.  The Pharisees used the scriptures as a club to beat people away from the gates of the church.  Jesus, interpreting the scriptures through the template of love, showed us how to welcome God’s children back home.

We see this same tension played out in the book of Job.  Job endures calamity upon catastrophe without blaming God for what’s happened to him.  His three “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) arrive to convince him that God always punishes evil and rewards good, so somehow, Job must’ve sinned. Job’s friends do have a superficial understanding of the scriptures; they just don’t understand much about love, or God for that matter.  (A very good friend of mine observes that Job’s friends did everything right: until they open their mouths.)

Those who follow Christ know that all scripture, the Old Testament and the New, must be read with eyes of love. If we love God and His children, we cannot leave those in need behind.  And once we recognize that love provides the Rosetta Stone by which we interpret all the teachings of Scripture, we find ourselves compelled to love more broadly and more deeply.  We find ourselves breathing in a climate of grace, and we begin to  learn the language of blessing.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Doing the Word

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:17-27.

I have always loved today’s Lectionary reading from James, for a number of reasons. He reminds us that following Jesus requires living into our beliefs, rather than merely accepting certain concepts or propositions. I love good, challenging theology, but that’s not James’ purpose. This is deep, richly practical Christianity.

James begins with the remarkable statement that all our works of love come down from the Father of lights. All of our charity, all of our generosity, all of our love: James tell us these come from heaven. This means, of course, that God constantly works to better this world.

James then cautions the believers to be quick to listen, although slow to speak and slow to anger. As I listen to squabbles within my own denomination, or heaven forbid read the flaming posts that carry on religious debates on the blogosphere, I understand why the Church thought James’ epistle needed to be in the Bible.

James advises us all to stop and think a few moments before we respond with a quick anger and find ourselves regretting patiently. Mother Teresa once made a powerful observation about the genuine function of Christian speech.  She said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

He warns us against fooling ourselves: all our piety, if we can’t bridle our tongues and live into the life of Christ, is nothing more than self-deception. At that time, the most vulnerable members of society were widows and orphans. They lived on the margins of first century Palestine.  James cautions the Church: real religion consists of taking care of God’s children when they can’t take care of themselves and avoiding the stain if sin.  James calls that the “pure religion,”and everything else is just holy smoke.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis