Two kinds of law

There follows in this long Psalm something that we ought, with Gods help, to consider and discuss: Set before me a law, O Lord, the way of your justifications, and I will always seek after it (Ps 118:33). The Apostle says: "The law is not made for the just person, but for the unjust and disobedient" (1 Tim 1:9-11). ... Well, was the person who says, "Set before me a law," the kind of person Paul says the law was made for? Of course not. If he were that sort of person, he would not have said in the previous verse: "I have run the way of your commandments, when you enlarged my heart." But if the law is not made for a just person, then what is it that he is praying for when he asks that a law be set before him? Perhaps he does not wish the law to be set before him in the same way as when it was set before a stiff-necked people, on stone tablets and not on "the fleshly tablets of the heart (2 Cor 3:3), according to the old covenant that engenders into slavery (Gal 4:24) and not according to the new covenant about which Jeremiah the prophet wrote: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, because they did not remain in my covenant, and I no longer cared for them, says the Lord. For this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, says the Lord, I will give my laws in their minds and I will write them in their hearts (Jer 31:31-33).Now we see how the Psalmist wants a law set before him by the Lord, not as the law was once made for the unjust and the disobedient, people belonging to the old covenant, and written on stone tablets. No, he wants the law that is meant for holy children of the free Jerusalem--the one that is above--, for the children of the promise, for the children of the eternal inheritance, the law that is given in the mind and written on hearts by Gods finger, the Holy Spirit, not a law that people keep in memory but neglect in their lives, but a law that they know because they understand it, a law that they do by loving, not confined in the narrow ways of fear but with all the breadth of love. One who does what the law requires out of fear of punishment and not out of love of righteousness does so unwillingly; and what he does unwillingly he would prefer, if it were possible, that it not be commanded, and so he is no friend but an enemy of a law which he wishes did not exist. A person whose will is thus unclean is not cleansed by such observance of the law. He cannot say what the Psalmist says: "I will run the way of your commandments when you enlarged my heart," because that enlarging refers to the love that the Apostle says is the fulfilment of the law (Rm 13:10). (Augustine, In Ps 118/11, 1; PL 37, 1528)Therefore have I loved your commandments above gold and topaz (Ps 118: 127). This is what grace does: we fulfill out of love commandments that we could not fulfill out of fear. For by Gods grace, "love has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rm 5:5). That is why the Lord himself said: "I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17), and the Apostle, too: "The fullness of the law is love" (Rm 13:10).(Augustine, In Ps 118/26, 8; PL 37:1579)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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