The Ten Commandments in the first reading are very familiar to us. For many Catholics they are still the moral guide used for Lenten preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation. It is important to recall that although they were first laws God gave to the Jewish people and became the core identity of the Jewish people, the giving of these laws came after God saved his people from slavery in Egypt and led them into a new kind of freedom.
Before the law comes love. This is the same pattern we see in healthy families. Parents love their children as infants before they begin to teach them right from wrong. The love isn’t earned or deserved by the child. The rules parents begin to model and then teach their children are for their good as well as for the good of the family and society.
God desires to love each of us personally and to free us from whatever enslaves us. Not just once, but over and over. What keeps you from the complete joy God wants you to have (John 15:1)? Broken relationships, an addiction, a bad habit or attitude that hurts you and others, a desire to do what you know is wrong? Only when you have experienced the love that sets you free can you begin to really desire to understand and observe the law.
You could say the whole point of the law is to continue to free us and keep us free- so that we can love others as God has loved us. Like the Jewish people we are continually learning to put God first and to treat one another with love and mercy. Lent is a time to become more aware of God’s love by drawing closer to him.
The freedom from sin offered to us by Jesus through the sacraments is always rooted in God’s steadfast love for us. Without knowing that divine personal love, trying to keep the law is hollow, a matter of duty rather than flowing from deep gratitude. It is clear that the psalmist in today’s psalm knows God’s love deeply and sees the law as a means of continuing to live in that transforming relationship. When you love the giver of the law, you come to love the law and no longer see it as a burden but as an invitation to grow in love.
Whether one lives by the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus in Scripture or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our relationship with God- or lack of relationship- is revealed in the choices we make day to day. His love is the source of our love. For Him, for ourselves, and for others, especially the poor, vulnerable and unloveable. Where we have failed to love, we are invited to return to love in the mercy of Jesus through the Eucharist and if we are able, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel reminds us that our life is the indisputable proof of our identity as God’s people. It is interesting that both the righteous (sheep) and the condemned (goats) are portrayed as completely unaware of having encountered Jesus at all as they chose whether to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned or care for the sick. In the end Jesus’ parable about the final judgement reminds us that “becoming holy” is much more about being loved unconditionally and then loving others in that same spirit than following a set of rules.
When we are set free by God’s love and our hearts desire to be holy as God is holy, to love as we have been loved, the law simply begins to teach us how.