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RULES AND STANDARDS, BROAD AND NARROW
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 04, 2018 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Deuteronomy 6:2-6 Psalm 18:2-4;47-51
Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 12:28B-34
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
As most of you know, I was a lawyer before I was ordained to ministry. I served in law-related professions for forty-one years, nineteen years as an insurance adjuster, two as a law clerk, and twenty as an attorney. But I was never truly happy doing any of that. I was called to be a priest when I was about eight years of age. Somehow, I wondered far afield for fifty-five years, but God brought me back to my original path. God always has a way of getting done what God wants done. So, when I departed from my law office at eleven-eleven East Tahquitz Canyon Way, Suite one-thirteen, on August thirty-one two-thousand fifteen, I was totally at peace with myself, knowing I had made the right decision.
Many people have asked me why I retired from law practice. Yes, I had no financial reason to continue, but the true reason I left the law world goes deeper. The fact is, I don’t like the legal system. In many respects, it goes against the values of my conscience. If nothing else, my forty-one years taught me that human laws and the concepts of justice promoted by Jesus do not always coincide.
The first reason I don’t like the legal system is that it is punitive. It deprives people of their money, property and liberty to penalize various transgressions, in both criminal and civil law. In many people’s minds, justice requires punishment. Violate the law, pay the penalty, so the saying goes. But that shallow thinking fails to consider whether the law itself is just, whether the penalty will actually change the behavior of the person punished, and what effects punishment will have on the long term relationship between the involved parties.
The greatest travesty of justice in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus. Nothing he did or said harmed anyone. He was crucified because the Temple establishment, that is, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, considered him a political and spiritual threat because he proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God…which in fact he was.
Jesus never punished anyone. I don’t agree the idea of people punishing other people, for anything. People should resist punishment from other people. Punishment should be left to God alone. Jesus agrees with me. Do you remember the story in Matthew twenty-five, where Jesus talks about separating good people who help the poor, and evil people who don’t? He said that the angels, not other people, will separate good and evil people on Judgment Day. And remember the story of the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned, when Jesus intervened and declared, “Let those who are without sin cast the first stone,” or something like that. Jesus recognized that those who would inflict punishment on others are more often than not, anything but perfect in their own behavior.
That said, I do support the idea of confining dangerous people to protect the rest of us. However, most prisoners are eventually released back into the outside world. Many of them continue to commit more crimes out of anger at the system. Whatever happens to prisoners while they are incarcerated does not work, because it does not change their behavior. Simply put, punishment of people by people is ineffective and produces long-term negative consequences, not to mention hypocritical.
The second reason I don’t like the legal system is that forgiveness and compassion are nowhere to be found. Apologies are not accepted. According to the system, people who do something wrong must always “pay the price” for what they did, no matter how remorseful they are and no matter what the circumstances. I can recall the case of an escaped prisoner blending into society and living an exemplary life for decades being apprehended and sent back to prison to finish his sentence, even though he presented no threat to the public. Similarly, taxpayer resources are wasted on imprisoning individuals for victimless crimes, like drugs and prostitution. We are told that the concept, “equal justice under law” requires such an outcome. A better way to look at these situations is whether a given person constitutes an immediate danger to the public or not. The people who wrote the laws, however, never considered that Jesus called us to forgive our enemies, not retaliate, and forgive those who offend us. Perhaps there would be less crime if victims forgave perpetrators, and perpetrators treated humanely. We need only compare the high crime rates of the United States with the lower crime incidences of European countries, where criminal justice systems treat their prisoners humanely and concentrate their efforts on rehabilitation.
The entire concept of “equal justice under law” is a misnomer in practice, which brings me to the third reason I don’t like the legal system. Reality is there is one legal system for the poor, and another one for wealthy persons, with vastly different outcomes. Look at the OJ Simpson trial, where a wealthy defendant overwhelmed the resources of the County of Los Angeles by hiring superior legal talent and perhaps literally got away with murder. The usual scenario, however, is that the relative financial resources of the litigants often determine the outcome of the case. By that, I mean that party with the money to hire the best legal talent, investigators and experts wins more often than not. Thousands of innocent people are serving prison sentences because they plead guilty to crimes they did not commit due to the fact they could not hire a better lawyer than the public defender’s office provides.
And tens of thousands of people are incarcerated awaiting trial because they do not have the money to post bail, while wealthy but dangerous criminals who can afford bail remain on the street. The Human Rights Watch Organization has documented that between 70% and 90% of people in custody accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies plead guilty before their first possible trial date. While it is impossible to quantify how many of these people are wrongly convicted, every one of them faced the choice: If you say you are guilty, you can go home, but if you assert your innocence you stay in jail, often for months at a time, losing jobs, leaving children and other responsibilities unattended. These people get criminal records, with lifelong consequences, but not because courts fairly judged them.
And the same problems arise in contract law, where the court looks only at what is owed under the contract, not at the relative power positions or economic situations of the parties. Is it right for a Court to enforce a contract against a poor person in favor of a big corporation when doing so would cause human suffering or impoverishment? I don’t think so.
The fourth reason I retired was the increasingly adversarial characteristics of dispute resolution. Why must one party win and the other lose? Why can’t we think about solving disputes in a way that benefits all involved? The urge of some people to win disputes so that they can dominate and control others to benefit themselves is a subject for another homily all by itself.
All of that said, my experiences in the legal field were not all bad. My work as an attorney was largely in Workers Compensation, where I represented injured workers against insurance companies. In doing that, I saw myself as living the Gospel. To paraphrase the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke, I did that by putting down mighty insurance companies and exalting humble and meek injured workers, filling them with money by emptying insurance company bank accounts. That, to me, is justice, changing the status quo to favor the disadvantaged at the expense of the advantaged. It’s what Jesus calls us to do, to turn the world upside down. I am proud of my efforts over twenty years producing millions of dollars in judgments and settlements for clients at the expense of wealthy insurance companies and big corporations. However, not only do these companies fight cases against them, they also engage in manipulating politicians to make the laws more favorable to them than to injured people. During the time I practiced law, the laws for injured workers underwent a drastic change from favoring injured workers to favoring insurance companies. That is not justice, which proves my point: the legal system does not always deliver justice. Why? The power relationship between the parties, not any neutral principles of law, determine the outcome of the case. That is fundamentally unjust, in and of itself.
Getting a law degree was helpful to my work as a priest, and in particular, understanding today’s gospel. My Property One course at Western State University, taught by Professor Susan Keller, at that time a Jewish thirty-something Harvard Law graduate, taught me the concept of law as rules and standards. A rule is something that tells you specifically what to do or not do. A good example is a speed limit sign. The idea is that you will not drive your car faster than it says. A standard, however, conveys a more generalized, and more flexible, idea of what is required or forbidden. For many years, in some rural states, the speed limit was whatever is “reasonable and prudent under the circumstances,” taking into account road condition, traffic, weather, visibility and similar factors.
The concept of laws and standards is at the heart of today’s Gospel. Jesus, as you well know, was an observant Jew, familiar with Jewish scriptures. The core scripture of the Jewish tradition is the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Some of Exodus, nearly all of Leviticus, and some of Numbers, set out numerous regulations of everything in Jewish tribal life in the first few millennia. It was very specific about what was permitted and prohibited and specified exact penalties for violations. The word “Deuteronomy” means “second law”. Much of it is a restatement of earlier laws, with some additional material.
Along comes Jesus, several thousand years later. In today’s Gospel, the legal scholars of the Temple questioned Jesus as to what the most important laws were. Jesus responded not with a myriad of rules, but with two very simple standards: Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. The first standard comes from the prayer that Jews pray all the time, called the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one,” and to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. As we heard today, that comes from the sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy from whence comes today’s First Reading. The second standard, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, was also nothing new. It came from the Book of Leviticus, chapter nineteen.
In distilling the entire law to those two principles, Jesus sought to revolutionize how we ought to think about law, that is, in terms of general standards rather than specific rules. Apply either or both of these two standards—love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself—and you will nearly always come up with the right answer as to whether you should or should not do something. In other words, empathize with people other than yourself. How would you like it if you were on the other end? If the answer is no, then maybe you shouldn’t do it. This principle goes in business, family relations, and all aspects of everyday life. Throughout his teaching, Jesus did not promulgate a detailed and specific code of canon law like that adopted by various churches. Jesus gave us broad, general principles. The Beatitudes, and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount are good examples, as well as principles that can be gleaned from all the parables Jesus told.
Jesus expected us to adapt his principles to situations and use common sense. For example, do you prosecute a homeless person for stealing an apple from a grocery store? I don’t think so, but our conservative sisters and brothers, whose identifying characteristic is their legalistic approach to religion, would say yes, and blame the homeless person for being homeless as well. However, that is not Christian. Jesus abhorred a legalistic approach to religion—the notion that salvation depends on obeying laws—pervades his entire ministry, and was the subject of much elaboration in the Pauline epistles, particularly Romans and Galatians.
Another thing I learned from Professor Keller was the concept of “broad and narrow holdings.” What that means is that do you apply a court’s determination of the law broadly, to all other situations, even if only vaguely similar, or do you apply it narrowly, to only those cases that fit the facts of the case in which it originated? In today’s Gospel, a scribe who responded that the two principles Jesus enunciated—love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself—were more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices, to which Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Is that a lesson for us here at Saint Cecilia’s, where we do more ritual than probably every other Western tradition catholic denomination church in the Coachella Valley? The answer is perhaps. If we were to look at this broadly, one could argue that all of the rituals we do here is of little importance, while if we considered it narrowly, we could say it doesn’t apply because we don’t burn animals or grain on the Altar here. But I think we can come to a compromise by looking at the general tenor of the statement, the idea that for Christians, our behavior, that is, our relationship with God and with other people, is at least as important as our rituals. What is wrong, however, is empty ritual, any ritual that replaces, obscures, or detracts from a vibrant relationship with God. Here, we unapologetically worship in the beauty of holiness to celebrate the magnificent transcendence of God’s glory, which we imbue with meaning in our commitment to participate in the establishment of the Kingdom of God, a universe where compassion, peace, and justice reign.
Laws are like inanimate idols. Laws are a false god. They have no heart, no empathy, no compassion. Laws are mere communicative symbols, words on paper. All human law, like human persons, is mortal. When the reason for a law ceases, the law itself ceases. So are laws useless? No, but following the law does not always equal doing justice. The mechanical application of laws without regard to particular circumstances often produces unjust results. The problem is compounded when corruption and politics enters the mix, particularly when people in powerful privileged positions are treated more favorably than others not so situated.
Mere obedience to laws, whether made by governments or churches, is not going to get bring us our ultimate goal of total oneness with God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom throughout the universe. What will do that is Jesus. As we are told in the prologue of the Gospel of John, the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus. That is because, as today’s Second Reading tells us, Jesus, our advocate, mediates between God and humanity as our great high priest. Unlike human priests, who eventually pass away, Jesus will remain our high priest forever. As always, everything about being Christian begins and ends with Jesus. AMEN.