Readings: Galatians 5:18-25; Psalm 1; Luke 11:42-46
There is a beautiful image in today's responsorial psalm. The one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it is like a tree planted by the water's edge. He yields fruit in due season, his leaves never fade, and all he does prospers. Such a person has well-placed roots. The spring of life and energy and action in her is healthy and reliable and fruitful.
St Paul knew this psalm very well. He is the most famous Pharisee to come to faith in Jesus and what he says about the law and the Spirit is therefore of great interest. He contrasts them, yes, but not as two alternative codes of law, one detailed and negative, the other general and positive. It is rather than any person's ability to keep the law of God - which we all ought to do - depends on his or her being planted in the Spirit, rooted in that divine gift of living water. Paul had come to realise that the positive fruits of the law could only be borne by people living in the Spirit. The law is good and wise and true as he says elsewhere. But without the Spirit any effort to live by the law will be 'fleshly', it will inevitably be partial and external, selective and more or less hypocritical.
It can be tempting to set up an easy opposition between 'old testament law' and 'new testament spirit'. But to give in to this tempation would be a very serious misunderstanding of the gospel, and of the whole history of salvation. The new law is not an alternative to the old law but is its full flourishing. The new law, of which the prophets already spoke, is the life of the faithful believer flowing from his or her communion with the Lord, the God of Israel. What will secure that communion for us?
Jesus himself warns us off this facile opposition through a couple of clues in today's gospel reading. 'These you should have done', he says, referring to justice and the love of God, 'without overlooking the others', those more minor matters of the law which the faithful person will also want to observe, because they are part of God's law.
The second clue comes in his response to the lawyer. 'You impose on people burdens too hard to carry', Jesus says. The yoke or burden is another image for God's law which guides the steps of the one who submits to it. In Matthew's gospel Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden (same term as here) is light. What makes it an easy yoke? That is does not ask very much of us? What makes it a light burden? That its demands are superficial and not radical? He is speaking of the cross and walking behind him on that way. So too is Paul in Galatians: 'far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world' (6:14). He speaks of crucifixion in today's first reading also, another warning against any understanding of Christian discipleship that would under-estimate its costliness.
The tree by the water's edge is the cross of Christ planted in our earth. Just down the road from where I now live is the church of San Clemente with its renowned mosaic of the cross as the tree of life. This dry and dead wood, irrigated by the blood of the one dying upon it, becomes a living tree from which flows the water of the river of life, the gift of the Spirit, the sacramental life of the Church. This is the light and eternally fruitful burden we are asked to accept and to carry. Its power reaches the depths of our hearts, irrigating the dry and dead places, filling us with its own love. That love is the Holy Spirit who enables us to observe the law of God and so to bear the fruit of the cross: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against which there is no law, but which are the fulfillment of the law of God, God's intention for His people.