A quick note on “doctors of the law”

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 20, 2016

As every schoolboy knows, certain parties are fond of rebuking others for being “doctors of the law.” Good Catholics, of course, have faced the charge of being Pharisaical ever since Western culture became sufficiently pagan to hold the moral law in disdain. For indeed, most Catholics who are punctilious about “the law” have the moral law primarily in mind, and not customary or even ritual law.

Does this mean none of us can over-emphasize what we might call “rubrics”, to the point of diminishing charity? Of course not. I’m sure that every one of us has made that mistake at one time or another. Or at least I have. But we ought also to remember that even charity is a law, the twofold law of love from which everything else flows.

Anyway, in thinking about “doctors of the law” recently while reading in the New Testament, I was reminded of something quite significant that may too often be ignored. It turns out that when Our Lord yelled at the Pharisees (yes, He didn’t merely criticize, he bawled them out), He didn’t for a moment suggest that their concerns as doctors of the law were unworthy. What he said was this:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. [Mt 23:23]

Or again, this:

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. [Lk 11:42]

If our primary concern is the moral law, which depends on faith and the love of God, and unfolds in both mercy and justice, then we escape Our Lord’s censure altogether. But, yes, sometimes we can get hung up on lesser matters. Anyone who says he or she has never done so is, to be frank, a liar.

But that is exactly why I have added strategic italics to Our Lord’s words. These italics are important. They remind us that, even when we have the attitude Our Lord desires, we are not supposed to neglect the lesser points of the law.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 21, 2016 11:19 AM ET USA

    "Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven." [Mt 5:18-19]

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Sep. 20, 2016 8:18 PM ET USA

    Right on, Jeff, right on