Beyond the Law

Recently, I read an article by a well-known Catholic writer that expressed delight that the UK bishops had just re-established the practice of no-meat on Fridays. The bishops imposed as an obligation on faithful Catholics in the UK that they abstain from meat on that day or, if they are vegetarian, that they abstain from some other food.

The writer talked a little about the spiritual benefits of abstinence, and then added that, despite recognizing the benefits, it was difficult for her to sustain the practice on her own. Thus she applauded a requirement that would aid her in engaging in the practice by creating a community of people also engaging in the practice.

I was reminded of the article when I read on one of the tales in Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic on the plane down to Oklahoma City the other day. The book, about which I’ll write more when I’ve finished reading it, is a series of parable-like short stories, each accompanied by a commentary.

One of the stories is titled The Third Mile. The tale concerns Jesus’ teaching that if one is asked to carry another’s pack for one mile, one should carry it freely for two miles. (Parenthetically, I had not realized that the genesis of that teaching was the law that required that if a Roman soldier demanded it, a citizen must carry his pack for a mile.) It recounts that over time, a small band of believers looked forward to carrying out this duty as a way to demonstrate their adherence to Jesus’ teaching. “The leaders would frequently refer to the teachings of Jesus and emphasize the need to carry a pack of the Roman soldier for two miles as a sign of one’s faith and commitment to God.”

When Jesus happened to pass through the town, the believers were excited and anxious to hear his praise for how well they implemented his teachings. Instead, Jesus said

“Dear brothers and sisters, you are faithful and honest, but I have come to you with a second message for you failed to understand that first. Your law says that you must carry a pack for two miles. My law says, ‘carry it for three.'”

In his commentary, Rollins invites us to consider the possibility that the Scriptures are less interested in giving up “concrete ethical answers that can be turned into some religious code of conduct,” than in “inviting [his disciples] to enter into a life of love that transcends ethics, a life of liberty that dwells beyond religious laws.” Love, he suggests, “always seeks to do more than what it demanded of it.”

This story and commentary helped me articulate what bothered me about the suggestion that the US bishops follow the lead of the UK bishops in re-establishing a requirement that Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays. If Jesus invites is living in excess of the law, going beyond the basic requirements, then pushing for increased requirements doesn’t help us to live the life we are invited to. “Force me to do this thing which is a good thing for my spiritual growth,” does not strike me as something Jesus is interested in.


One thought on “Beyond the Law

  1. I agree completely.

    Why would a loving God demand sacrifice and suffering just because He can? I believe that sacrificial acts have no intrinsic value. Their value is determined by their effect. Either they must draw you closer to God or benefit another. I would be much more impressed if the bishops had encouraged the faithful to choose someone whom they are not particularly fond of and that they do something nice for that person.

    I’m finding it a whole lot easier to worship Jesus than to follow Him.


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