The Limits of the Law

When I was a teacher I had a number of students who suffered from test anxiety. This phenomenon manifests itself in the following way. We could have activities, lessons, and other strategies to learn material and the students would know the material cold. Yet, when the “test day” arrived, some of them froze and could not remember the material in order to succeed on the test. Thus, they would do poorly. So, when I decided to call the assessment exercise something else and change the atmosphere of the former test day, the students did much better. Once we eliminated the bad word ‘test’, their fear went away and they could succeed.

In a certain sense, this same dynamic is taking place in the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul recognizes that the law has been unable to help God’s people to achieve success. In fact, the law has had the opposite effect: it has caused people to sin. Paul uses the history of Israel to demonstrate the point. From the time of Adam to Moses death reigned because sin was in the world, though in that time people did not sin as terribly as the original fault of Adam. Once the law entered the history of Israel at the time of Moses, sin abounded all the more. The responsorial psalm is the prayer of lament from David after he committed the double crime of murder and adultery. David is the paradigm of the law, and yet the law failed even David.

The original sin of our first parents is recounted in the first reading for today’s liturgy, and once again we find a law in existence: do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While it seems like a simple law, our first parents were not able to keep this law. The serpent found it quite easy to fool Eve, and Adam gave even less resistance when offered the fruit by her. Once sin entered the world, the history of sin becomes the history of the world, and even the greatest gift of God to the Jewish people – the Law – failed them in the thought of Paul.

Paul offers the death of Jesus as the victory over sin and death, and through the death of Jesus the entire human race is now able to overcome sin in our lives. Our text from the Gospel of Matthew recounts the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Matthew carefully constructs this story to mirror the temptations of the Israelites in the desert after leaving Egypt. In each of those original temptations the people failed God; Jesus, however, will not fail – and in this victory over Satan we find an example to follow. In each temptation the devil presents Jesus with a passage from the law, and in each reply Jesus too uses the law to provide an example of faithfulness to God.

What the people of God lacked in their history wasn’t a law to obey but an example to follow. In the person of Jesus we have the example of the only one who lived the law to perfection, and yet obedience to the law is not sufficient to find salvation because we cannot earn our salvation. Salvation is solely a gift of God offered to us, one that comes to us in the person of Jesus and through his death and resurrection. Paul uses the word ‘gift’ four times in the selection from Romans to highlight this fact.

In this time of Lent we seek to repent of our sins and to follow Jesus more closely. Let us remember that, in the words of the spiritual writer Fr. Paul Coutinho, “Repentance is a consequence and not a condition of God’s love.” We do not earn God’s forgiveness through our repentance; we repent as we respond to God’s love in recognizing we are not worthy of it and we often fail in responding to love with love. And so we pray with the Church as we begin this Lenten season: “Let us pray at the beginning of Lent for the spirit of repentance. Lord our God, you formed man from the clay of the earth and breathed into him the spirit of life, but he turned from your face and sinned. In this time of repentance we call out for your mercy. Bring us back to you and to the life your Son won for us by his death on the cross, for he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.”

Jude Huntz is Director of the Human Rights Office for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.

For complete daily Scripture texts, click here.

Daily Scripture Readings

Monday, March 14
Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18
Psalms Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 15
Matthew 25:31-46

Tuesday, March 15
Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalms 34:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19
Matthew 6:7-15

Wednesday, March 16
Jonah 3:1-10
Psalms 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19
Luke 11:29-32

Thursday, March 17
Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25
Psalms 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8
Matthew 7:7-12

Friday, March 18
Ezekiel 18:21-28
Psalms 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8
Matthew 5:20-26

Feast of St. Joseph, Saturday, March 19
2 Samuel 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16
Psalms 89:2-3, 4-5, 27 and 29
Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22
Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2:41-51a

Second Sunday of Lent
March 20

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalms 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
2 Timothy 1:8b-10
Matthew 17:1-9

The full text of the Scripture readings for this week and next week can be found here:
Click on the “Readings” tab at the top of the page.



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October 21, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph