Heading up the Monash Freeway on Sunday mornings in lockdown to get here to the Cathedral for Mass usually means I have the road to myself. There’s little traffic to contend with, so I can simply set the cruise control on 80k/hr and go for it. Of course, in more normal times – can you remember then? – and at peak hour, the Monash is more like a carpark, so driving at anywhere near the legal limit of 80k/hr would be both reckless and wrong. Just because something is the law, doesn’t automatically mean it can be, or even ought to be, obeyed.

In Jesus’ time, there were very many religious laws, stemming from the time of Moses, about daily living. Quite a few of them dealt with food, stipulating what could be eaten, how it was to be prepared, and the manner of its consumption. Being attentive to these – and the many other – laws was a sign of a religiously upright person. The laws existed for a good purpose, and it was considered a righteous thing to follow them.

We might think of such food laws today as a little quaint, or even misplaced. But do not forget that Jesus himself would have attentively practiced these laws and customs on a daily basis, so it wasn’t as if they were bad things in themselves. Do we not ourselves uphold law-abiding citizens as models to follow – those who keep to the speed limit, who don’t drink and drive, who indicate when changing lanes, who maintain a registered car?

The Pharisees and Scribes who corrected Jesus and his disciples for their poor attentiveness to the law were doing what was a common practice at the time. Following the law was seen as following God. I suspect they would have been quite taken aback by the manner in which Jesus responded to them. Jesus’ words of rebuke would have been felt quite sharply.

So, what was going on here? We may feel as if our lives are ruled by laws alone; certainly, in this lockdown period we all probably think this is the case. If all we had to live by were the rules set out to be followed, even if we thought them good rules, then something of our humanity would be lost. Societies that have attempted to rule their people only by the imposition of law have all ended in tyranny and oppression. This is because the laws and commandments, the rules and decrees of human living – even those from God himself – are not the first measure of the good order of our lives.

The first measure, rather, is the measure of the good relationship we have with God and with one another. The laws by which we do live find their meaning and value only in so far as they uphold and nurture these relationships. God did not establish his People by laying down the Ten Commandments. He started, rather, with an invitation, a call, to a relationship with him. The People of God existed before the Law of God, and the Ten Commandments were not received by this People until after they had been rescued by the Lord from Egypt.

God’s law is always good. Human law can be good, and mostly is. But no law is good simply because it is a law; no law will save us. As St Paul often said: if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees, who want only compliance with the law, that they should not start and finish with that; rather find the law to live by from within the living of your relationship with God. As Jesus said, ‘it is from within, from people’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge;’ not from what a law might stipulate. Don’t just know the law and deceive yourselves, as St James put it; instead, be doers of God’s word by coming to the help of those in need. First the relationship, and then the laws by which that relationship might flourish. Seek first God’s kingdom, and all else will follow.

Image: Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt