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The letter vs. the spirit of the law? That's not how the Psalmist sees it.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 05, 2015

A lot of talk these days from the Vatican (I’d say from the apostolic palace, but the Pope has moved out) suggests that there is a natural, unavoidable tension between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The law is portrayed as an encumbrance, a burdensome obligation, while the spirit brings freedom and joy.

Anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours, or just reads the Psalms occasionally, soon grows familiar with a very different attitude toward the law.

  • I will delight in thy statutes; I will not forget a word….
  • Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes…
  • ..but I delight in thy law…
  • The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces…
  • If thy law had not been my delight…
  • I hate double-minded men, but I love thy law…
  • Great peace have those who love thy law…

Yes, of course it is possible to focus on the letter of the law in a way that excludes the spirit; it was for that perverse approach that our Lord rebuked the Pharisees. But for the honest faithful, who grasp both the letter and the spirit, the law is a treasure.

Moreover, when times were tough, the faithful of Israel recognized that it was even more important to cling to that treasure. Earlier this week the Office of Readings included a selection from the first book of Maccabees, in which Mattathias rallies the spirit of his righteous rebels by invoking the law: “Arrogance and scorn have now grown strong; it is a time of disaster and violent anger. Therefore, my sons, be zealous for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers.”

In times of crisis, hold tight to the law: that seems to be sound advice. And today, when marriage is in crisis?

Today’s Office of Readings brought this reflection from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (quoting St. Paul):

Now I order you to retain this creed for your nourishment throughout life and never to accept any alternative, not even if I myself were to change and say something contrary to what I am now teaching, not even if some angel of contradiction, changed into an angel of light, tried to lead you astray. For even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which you have now received, let him be accursed in your sight.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Nov. 06, 2015 10:51 AM ET USA

    See also 2 kings 22 and 23 for what happens when you forget the law.