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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - God's Rules for Life

Robert Barron - God's Rules for Life

Robert Barron - God's Rules for Life

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading contains a wonderful little passage on the moral law that God gave to Israel. If you look through the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, you'll find that Israel is this people structured according to law, and you might say three types of law. God gives liturgical law, ritual law, and moral law to Israel. They are to worship him properly, they are to live in a ritually pure way, and they are to be morally upright. In those three ways they become God's holy people. Look in the book of Leviticus, for example, and you see page upon page about ritual purity. You'll find the moral law kind of sprinkled throughout, but a lot in Exodus, a lot in Deuteronomy. Liturgical law too: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers all have liturgical laws. Thomas Aquinas, by the way, he was really interested in this issue.

Look in Thomas' "Summa theologiae"; he's really interested in these legal precepts of the Old Testament, and he calls them, in his typically pithy way, the ceremonial, juridical, and moral precepts of the Old Law. So I want to just look a little bit at these three because our reading has to do with the moral law, but you've got to situate that within the context of the other two. So first of all, liturgical law. God wants Israel to worship him in a particular way. He wants their worship to be correct. Now, as I've said a million times, not that God needs our worship, God doesn't need anything, but rather it's a way of shaping Israel so that it becomes a holy people; it becomes attuned to God.

So for example, if you look in Exodus, Leviticus especially, you see a lot of talk about sacrifice, the proper way to do it; you hear of the tabernacle, which eventually morphs into the temple; you hear of priests and vestments, including turbines, tunics, miters; you hear the manner of priestly ordination. I find as a priest that section of the Bible really fascinating, because this ritual ordination I went through many years ago, the roots of it are way back here in the Old Testament. You hear a lot about blood and altars, that's where the sacrifice was performed; you hear about incense. So all the ways that Israel's liturgical life is structured.

Now, in regard to ritual law, again, crack open your Bibles to the book of Leviticus, and you'll see dozens and dozens of pages about ritual law. What I mean here is clean and unclean animals. The animals that are okay to eat, the animals that you shouldn't eat. And boy, do you get a lot of detail in the book of Leviticus about that. You hear about diseases of the skin, things that on the surface of your body that make you unclean. You hear a lot about various bodily excretions and so on that make you ritually unclean, and how to recover your ritual cleanness. And then you hear a lot about the moral law. This is probably best known to us, look in the book of Exodus to the Ten Commandments. They're reiterated, by the way, a somewhat different version in the book of Deuteronomy. A sort of application of the Ten Commandments can be found in the book of Leviticus. But all through these texts, you find moral prescriptions: how the people of Israel ought to behave ethically. Okay.

Now, here's an interesting question I think for us believers today. What has happened to all this Old Testament law? Do we simply abide by it? Is it simply in vogue? Has it all been abrogated? What's the status now of all these laws? Well, look first at liturgical law. Now, I'm speaking to you as a Catholic priest, as a Catholic bishop. The Catholic Church has preserved so much of ancient Israel's liturgical life. All the things I just mentioned: tabernacle, temple, altar, sacrifice, incense, priesthood, miters, vestments, ordination, we've got it all! All of that was taken up into the Catholic Church, but I'd say this, given new and fresh focus in Christ Jesus. Who is Christ Jesus? He's the true Lamb of sacrifice. What's the cross of Jesus? That's the true altar. Who's the true high priest? Christ himself who offers the sacrifice.

What's the incense? Well, that's the offering going up from Calvary that's pleasing unto the Father. And then all of that carried over into the Catholic priesthood, which is simply a participation in the priesthood of Christ. So this part of Israel's ancient law has been taken up, sublimated, given fresh expression in Catholicism. Okay? How about the ritual law? All this talk about clean and unclean, and animals you can and can't eat, and people that become unclean and therefore are excluded. Well, frankly, in Christianity, much of that has been abrogated. Much of that has been suppressed. And you can see it in the New Testament itself. Remember the passage where Jesus says: it's what comes out of a  man that makes him unclean, not what goes in. And in saying that, we hear in the Gospels, he thereby declared all foods clean.

How revolutionary that was for a Jew of Jesus' time. Extraordinary! That's moving beyond much of the book of Leviticus. He declared all things clean. Remember that great scene, you'll find it in the Acts of the Apostles, when St. Peter has this vision of the sheet coming down, and it's filled with all these different animals, both clean and unclean. And he hears the voice of God say, "Slaughter and eat". Peter resists. He's a pious Jew shaped by the book of Leviticus. But three times the voice reiterates, "Slaughter and eat". Look in St. Paul. How are we justified? Not by works of the law, especially the law of circumcision, which was so important for ancient Israel. Not by these ritual works of the law, but rather through Christ. In all of these ways, the ritual side of that law was largely put down. We've moved beyond it. Which then brings us to the moral law. And that's our reading for today.

Thomas Aquinas says this: the moral law remains in place from ancient times through Christ and into the life of the Church. The great moral teaching of Israel remains in vogue, in effect, up and down the centuries. Why? Because it represents now these great abiding intuitions of the ethical life by which our lives should be structured. Well, that's the context for the passage for today. Listen now to what's said, and I want you to hear how relevant, of course, it is to our time, but also if you can, to hear how strange this teaching is, how surprising it remains. "You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt". What do we hear here? Not only the moral recommendation "Don't oppress aliens," but something even deeper, more abiding, namely, this empathy with  the suffering of others. You too were once oppressed in Egypt. Do you remember what that was like? Use that memory as the basis for your empathy with those who suffer now.

Now, see everyone, I want you to see this. See, we take it for granted because we've been shaped by this book! We've been shaped in the West by the Bible. But how strange this was in the ancient world! You know look, again, in things like "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," look at these great texts from the ancient world. To have this tremendous  sympathy for the oppressed? Come on. They were often societies based upon the dominance of powerful figures. People are poor and oppressed? "Well, too bad for them". "You should become a heroic figure". And how that's revived by a classical scholar from the nineteenth century  called Friedrich Nietzsche, who looked at biblical ethics as a slave ethic. No, Nietzsche revives that classical idea of the will to power. The Bible stands athwart that position. "You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt". Empathy; empathy with those who suffer.

Friends, if you recognize that today, and you should; it's in people at their best today, if you recognize it, what you're recognizing is the Bible. This great moral teaching that's come surging up from ancient Israel into the Church and thereby into the Western consciousness. How about this? "You shall not wrong any widow or orphan". Well, see, who were widows and orphans in the ancient world? They were the most vulnerable people imaginable. So this is way before we have anything like social services and all of that. You're a widow, you've lost your means of support. You're an orphan, even worse. Unless some family member is nice enough to take you in, you're basically destitute. "You shall not wrong any widow or orphan". In other words, you have a, I'll use our language, preferential option for those who are poor and forgotten, marginalized. You don't exalt in your own self-sufficiency, but rather, out of empathy, you focus on those who are weakest and most vulnerable in the society.

See, friends, if we ever say, "A society is judged on the basis of the way it treats the weakest in their society", that's biblical. That's not a standard view, either ancient or modern. That's a biblical morality on display. And how about the last theme? "If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among [your] people, you shall not act like an extortioner…by demanding interest from him". Well, that's the ground for a teaching that lasted for centuries and  centuries within the Church: a teaching against usury, lending money at interest. I mean, we still keep it alive  in the life of the Church that you should never extort people, never take advantage of their weakness. But can I say this everybody? You can find it in Thomas Aquinas. You can find in Ambrose of Milan. You can find it repeated in Pope Francis' most recent encyclical letter, that though we all have a right to private ownership, when it comes to the use of our goods, of our property, the common good must always be paramount.

That's Thomas Aquinas. That's not some radical view. Ambrose of Milan is the one who famously said, if you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt. That's the universal destination of goods. In terms of this teaching: don't extort people; don't take advantage of their economic weakness. But rather, share from your abundance. Widely accepted in the classical world? Uh-uh. Widely accepted today? No way. Coming up from the Bible? Yes, indeed. The great ceremonial, the great liturgical laws of Israel, yeah, they still exist, I would say, in a sublimated form in the Church. The ritual laws, Christ himself, I think, largely abrogated those. You see Peter and Paul abrogating them. The moral law? Enduring across the centuries to our day. Let this law, get out your Bibles, look up this passage in the book of Exodus, and let the radicality of this teaching, which has validity across the centuries, let it sink into your hearts even now as this moral teaching continues  to shape God's holy people. And God bless you.
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