But The Spirit Gives Life

Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Cor 3:5-6

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.
Matthew 5:18

Today’s readings from 2 Corinthians and from Matthew seem, at first reading, to contradict each other. Paul speaks of a ministry of his that is “not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” Matthew, on the other hand, has Jesus declare that “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.” The scriptures, the tradition, and each of us in her or his own life live the tension between law (and the letter of the law) and spirit. Today’s readings afford an opportunity for us to reflect on how this tension plays out in our own lives and how we can, perhaps, “find peace” by reconciling what we often mistakenly live as opposites.

Perhaps a way into a deeper understanding of the role of law in our lives comes from verse 5 of 2 Corinthians. “Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming form us, rather, our qualification comes from God.” As we shall see in the opening line of tomorrow’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches that our “righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). For the scribes and Pharisees the law became an end rather than a means. It was in their adherence to the law, and others’ recognition of their “righteousness” in doing so, that they formed their sense of identity. Paul, once a Pharisee himself, has come to realize that adherence to the law is no qualification for ministry. He has had to reckon with the truth of who he really is, and yet discovered that in that truth of his own weakness and sinfulness, he is saved by the love of God which he has experienced in his encounter with the Risen Jesus. He no longer is the self-righteous one who is a model of upright behavior, but he is rather “Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul is not sent on  his own behalf, but rather as a servant, a witness, an instrument of God’s love for wounded and sinful human beings.

The law that will never pass away as long as we human beings continue to live our fallen lives is a law that is infused by spirit and by the Spirit. There are times in life when what keeps us from doing harm to ourselves and others is “the law.” For most of us, whatever the level of our rage, we keep from striking out and harming others (at least physically) because we have been formed into the limits of what a human person may or may not do. On a much more pedestrian level, we know that at times we stop for prayer or we give our tired and wearying attention to someone who needs us by dint of discipline. We know that without a commitment to good practice we can never reform our bad habits and develop good ones. Even a habit of prayer or of loving attention to others requires, on our part, the willingness to overcome the downward pull, the acedia, that is part of our very makeup. The discipline, however, that stays our violent hand and that keeps our appointments with prayer and loving attention and communication is not at all an end in itself. Keeping my prayer schedule is not inherently life giving. Taking, and even dragging, myself to prayer in order to learn and be available to love, however, is life giving.

The qualification that comes from God of which Paul speaks is love of those to whom he is sent. That love is not dependent on his own capacity to love; it is rather the love of Christ in him. The more he practices the disciplines of love, the better instrument he will become. The love, however, remains always the same, when he mediates it well or when he doesn’t, when he “feels” it and when he is dry and caught in himself. This is true of our ministry and service to others, and it is also true in ourselves. God’s love for us is not dependent on our fidelity. Our awareness of that love, however, is.

The Torah, the Law, describes a Way. It is a description as much as a prescription. We don’t live the law to create an identity for ourselves or to become justified; we live it that we might realize who we really are and our proper relationship to God and the world. The law shall always be necessary for us, because we are always forgetting who we are and to what we are called. If we are honest, however, we shall also realize that we are never able to live up to the letter of the law. We are, however, able, with good will, to live its spirit, because the Spirit of the law is within us. To realize this would mean that we would never use the “letter of the law” as a weapon or a burden to lay on others. We would never dare to exclude from the human or the ecclesial community another who we identify as sinful. For, we know far too well, that we have no “qualification” to do so. “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.” (1 John 4;16) This is a love that has nothing to do with our qualifications for it; it is rather God’s love of his own image and Spirit within us. To come to know and believe in this love is to realize, as Jan van Ruusbroec says, that it is a love “common to all.”

So, when we know the love, we need not be commanded to love and care for our neighbor and, for that matter, our own life. Because we are not always able to know and believe in that love, we must at times be instructed on the inherent limits of our human nature and behavior. The letter of the law will hold us in check, but only the spirit of the law (the Spirit of God’s love) will bring us to life.

The third group of good persons is composed of those who are still holier and much more advanced in spirit and nature. These are recollected persons who, with God’s grace, walk in his presence with a spirit which is free and exalted and which draws inward their heart and senses, their soul and body, and all their corporeal powers. Such persons have mastered their spirit and nature and have thereby found true peace. Even though they might at times experience some incitement in their nature, they quickly win the victory. No inordinate movement can long continue within them, for they truly know our Lord in both his divinity and his humanity. They exercise this knowledge with a spirit which is free of images both when they turn inward and with a pure love which is raised up to the nature of the Godhead and when they turn outward with a heartfelt affection which is conformed to the image of our Lord’s humanity. The more they know and love, the more do they savor and experience, and the more they savor and experience, the more do they desire, long for, seek, ground, and find what they love with their heart, soul, and spirit.

Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II,B

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