Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rules Flow From Relationship (Lent 3B)

Please help me out this morning by imagining you missed your best friend's wedding. That's hard to imagine nowadays, with low airfares, but perhaps you were exploring the Amazon or recovering from surgery.

A few months pass, and finally you get together with your friend. "Tell me what marriage is like," you ask him eagerly.

"Oh, it's really amazing," he replies. "I have to come home at night, I don't go on holidays without her, and I put the toilet seat down."

What chances would you give that marriage?

And yet that's the way some people talk about the Christian faith—as if it were more about rules than about a relationship: mostly dos and don'ts.

On the other hand, what chances would you give to a marriage where the husband didn't come home at night, and went on holidays without his wife?

The point is that the basic rules of marriage follow from the relationship; they're not the heart of it but a logical consequence of love. Of course some rules aren't quite so basic: we follow them because the one we love asks us to. "Darling," your friend's wife may have said, "It drives me crazy when you leave the seat up."

Understanding this is terribly important. We had an all-day session of the Alpha Course yesterday, and more than once the video presentation underlined that Christianity is primarily a relationship, not a set of rules. As the Catechism puts it, we are called by baptism into "a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God."

That relationship calls for a certain way of living. But there's a big difference between the rules that come from our relationship with God and the rules that make for a happy marriage—because our spouse is not our Creator. God's rules are not only for our good, but for the good of society and even the planet itself.

Is it an accident that our first reading introduces the Ten Commandments with these words: "I am the Lord… who brought you out of the house of slavery"? God's law opens the door to human freedom, while sin enslaves.

As Pope Benedict said recently, Christian moral teaching is a message of liberation, not of constraint. The Gospel proposes unchanging moral truths precisely as the key to human happiness and "the basis for building a secure future." [Ad limina address to U.S. Bishops, January 19, 2012]

Why was Jesus so angry at the money changers? Because he cares about human happiness. The money changers were cheating the poor, cheating those who were trying to perform a religious duty. And the money-changers had set up their tables in what was called the Court of the Gentiles—the only part of the Temple where non-Jews could enter. As Professor Barclay puts it, "they had made the one place where everyone could pray into a noisy marketplace where no-one could pray. Their shady business was not only hurting the Jews financially, it was hurting the pious Gentiles spiritually."

God cares about what we do. His rules aren't meant to snare us or to make life difficult; they are meant to stop us from harming others and from harming ourselves. They guide us to the good life.

If we can see the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ and his Church as promoting our good and the good of others then we'll find them much easier to obey. We need to understand that God wants creation to work, according to his plan. Our deliberate failure to follow that plan has consequences for us here and now, because things go better for us when we live according to the manufacturer's instructions.

At the same time, God's law is more than just a master plan: it's what he expects of us. As I've just said, Jesus does care about what we do. We can anger the Lord by our sinful actions; we can deserve to be kicked out of our Father's House.

Lent is a time to grow in our relationship with God, to take positive steps towards a better, richer and more prayerful Christian life. But for some of us it is also a time to take a hard look at our lives, our business practices, our treatment of others. We should ask whether there is anything we do that exploits others.

If we acknowledge such sins, and turn away from them, the merciful Lord will heal and strengthen us, and give us the joy of a truly blessed Easter.

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