Blessed are they who follow the Law of the Lord!
The question of what really amounts to happiness has gripped man for centuries, for as long as he has existed. It is an essential human question, one which is very much related to the question of meaning in life. Both questions ultimately turn to the truth that man’s search for meaning is actually his search for happiness in the final instance.
This is a question which has been expressed in many cultures and in many philosophies. We hear it in the Gospel most especially, through the lips of an unnamed rich young man in the account of Matthew (cf. chapter 19:16-19) who poses this question to the Lord: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” In answer the Lord says, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
Keep the commandments. This is something which the readings this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time enjoins us, we who wish to follow Christ, who came that we may have life, and have it to the full. Keeping the commandments allow us to provide an answer to this question that man has made to himself concerning happiness, which equivalently means living life, entering life, having it to the full. In the Responsorial Psalm itself we hear beatitude—happiness, being blessed—as something which is given to and belongs to those who follow the Law of the Lord.
This is an injunction, a command, which the people of Israel were very much aware of. Ever since this Law was given to them through Moses by God they knew that, before this positive expression of God’s will already revealed tacitly in nature, a choice yawned open before them: the choice between life and death, between happiness and damnation; with the voice of the Lord their God telling them to “choose life” they realized that following the commandments of God was the sure way of arriving at authentic answer to the question of true happiness.
This Law, preserved in the holy writings of the people of Israel—the Torah—is brought into fulfillment in the coming of the Son of God, the same Lord had given the Law to the people. Though he came to renew all things (cf. Rev. 21:1), it did not mean the abolition of this Law; with respect to the Law, the Lord “upgrades” so to speak the way we view the following of this same Law as a guide—not the source, as some of his contemporaries (among them especially the Pharisees) believed—to happiness and salvation in God.
In the Gospel the Lord Jesus is careful to point out that it is not the scrupulous and legalistic accomplishment of the Law that saves and gives glory to God. This is what he means by the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. These were people who were utterly punctilious in obeying the Law to the letter. Not that obeying it to the letter is bad, but that which the Lord attacks in the attitude of the Pharisees is that in sticking to the letter so rigorously they had forsaken its spirit. They had forgotten that holiness does not come from following a dead letter but rather from being moved by the Spirit of the Living God that breathes through the letters of the Law, through the Commandments.
Jesus the Lord tells us that we need to go deeper than the words of the Commandments themselves. Following the commandments is the basis of our morality; this means that the commandments of God are not just letters, but a life to be lived. It is not merely superficial, but one that affects the persons in all levels, especially his mind and heart, which only God sees. A superficial following of the commandments leads to a pharisaical morality of life: it is living the commandments in a way that does not surpass that of the Pharisees.
This is something that could be said of how many Christians today live morally: it is merely skin-deep. Here the commandments are best seen as mere prohibitions and not as a life to be lived. Seen as an imposition, it is grudgingly followed as something which curtails my own personal freedom, not as something which actually guarantees it.
Finally, living the commandments would remain dead letter for us who follow Christ unless we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit. Only the Spirit, who probes everything, even the depths of God (cf. 1 Cor.2:10), can teach us how to live the commandments, leading lives that are pleasing to God. May his breath vivify us and bring us the happiness that each of us was destined for.