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Question 42.

Dear Father,
Which is greater, is it compassion or the law? In the New Testament Jesus says we must be compassionate, but at the same time pious Jews were determined to live by the law in order to find accusation in His Judgment, least He slip. If we take the adulterous woman, Jesus says, he who has not sinned may throw the first stone at her, keeping this statement in mind- (it was the "clean" Jews who asked) for He preached about having compassion towards others, yet they wanted to cause him to "fault" by saying that she should be stoned, because that is what the law required. therefore can it be said that compassion and love for they neighbour is more important than living in the law. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says; He who does not know God will be judged by his conscience. Therefore is following your conscience sometimes better? For the Lord gave us a law engraved not on a table of stone but a table of flesh. However is it fitting to follow the law to its very letter, as pious Jews once done?

Kind regards


Answer to Question 42.

Dear Clovis,

When we examine the Old Testament laws in the light of the New Testament, we see that they were not perfect, but they were laws the people could apprehend. We must not forget that as yet, they were still in a period of darkness without the grace and light of the Holy Spirit to enlighten them and show them a different and superior code of conduct. Let’s not imagine for one second that the nations of the Old Testament understood everything we have been taught in the New Testament. From Adam and the fall people lived distant from God, living in their transgressions without laws. This lawlessness led the people to such wickedness that we are told God repented that he created man. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” (Gen. 6: 5-6)
The Law of the Old Testament was given to teach the people right from wrong and to prepare them for the coming of Christ. Without the Law there was no definition of what was pleasing to God for as St. Paul says “I would not have known sin except through the Law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the Law had said ‘you shall not covet’”. (Romans 7:7)
The law then defined what sin was and without it the people were unaware of its existence. But even with the law, the people were not ready to accept spiritual laws like turning the other cheek and loving their enemies. They needed to be educated slowly and in a way they could understand. An eye for an eye was, for that period of time before grace, was the most effective law, because in the majority of cases the fear in breaking the law held them bound to keeping the law. Our best teacher to help us understand the Old Law and how things changed with the coming of Christ is St. Paul. Here are just some of the things he says concerning the Old Law and faith in Jesus Christ.
“But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 22:26.)
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).

The Old law can then be likened as laws for children who are not ready to think like adults, but by this I mean they are like children in the spirit who have not grown spiritually. We can explain this using an image of our modern day educational system. The Old Testament is like the education we are given in infant and junior schools and the New Testament like the education we are given in senior school. University, which is optional, can be likened to those who have put into practice the teaching of the New Testament and have received a master’s degree in the spiritual life.
With the coming of Christ the Old Law is not abolished for as Christ said: “I am not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it” But what does this mean? The Jews kept the law to the letter, but had no room in their hearts for love and compassion. The New Testament reveals to us that the Law is only a guide which should lead us how to live in love with God and our neighbours, but it is not perfect if it is not observed with love. Christ showed us that love is above all laws. That is why St. Paul says: “we are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6: 14), and that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3: 6).
The good example of love can be found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
When a lawyer asked Jesus what he should do to find eternal life he replied with another question “What is written in the law? How readest thou?” And the lawyer replied: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” The lawyer replied with the correct answer because even though his question was “what should he do to find eternal life”, he knew the answer lay in having love for God and for one’s neighbour. His answer also showed that he was well learnt in the Law because he did not quote one of the Ten Commandments, but gave a combination answer by quoting passages from two books – Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:5. Lev. 19:18). Thus he showed that he didn’t lack knowledge of the Law, but he did lack the observance of it. He knew the letter and ignored the spirit.
That is why Christ said to him: “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live”. Don’t just read and teach the Law, but go and put into practice what you preach. But following the road of love can lead to one’s life being sacrificed for the sake of love for others.
The lawyer is among those who Christ said that: “they hear and see, but do not understand”, in other words they do not hear and see with ears and eyes of their soul, therefore neither can they understand with their soul. There is a hardness in their hearts from their sins and especially their pride. For them eternal life is very distant because they live only by the letter of the law, the biological life and not with Grace which is eternal life. They cannot understand the true meaning of love and how it identifies with sacrifice for the one you love. For the love which is ready to die for God and one’s neighbour there is no death: love is eternal life. How can the love for God as expressed by the lawyer with the quadruple repetition of “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind”, how can this be put into practice and if necessary how can it reach the sacrifice of this physical life? What does the Law offer to help man in sacrificing his self love, so that he may be able to offer himself totally to God and to his neighbour and thus gain eternal life? The answer is absolutely nothing. The Mosaic Law preserves a certain relationship with the true God, so that the people of Israel are not drawn away into idolatry and also to prepare the reception of the Messiah. But it is the “letter” which doesn’t strengthen man in the struggle so that he remains in God.
The Church in the New Testament era also has many laws which we call canons which again should be observed by all members, but we should be careful not to observe them like the Jews observed the Mosaic Law. How then should we understand what the canons are? Many people consider them infallible in the same way the doctrines of the Church are. This is a gross misunderstanding: the canons are only rules for guidance. They guide and prevent men from falling into error and heresy, and assist the penitent to re-find his way back to God. We see that many canons were revised or updated from one council to the next and that is because something that was valid in the fourth century could not be applied in the same way in the eighth century. We are now in the 21st century and we cannot apply the penances mentioned in the canons because our way of life has changed so drastically when compared to all previous centuries.
Let us take as an example the sin of voluntary abortion. An early canon condemns the sinner to exclusion from the Holy Mysteries until the time of her death. Another canon excludes a murderer for 25 years, but must spend those years repenting and fasting from the morning until evening and then eat only Xerophagia, in other words only bread and water. The 20th canon of Ancyra [314], excludes the sinner for seven years. The 91st canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council [692] condemns the sinner as a murderer, so the exclusion from the Mysteries is again the life sentence. The 2nd of Basil excludes the sinner for ten years. The 21st canon of John the Faster for 5 or even 3 years.
Why do we have such vast differences from one canon to the next?
Precisely because the canons are not the Christian Faith, they are not punishments that condemn sinners to a lifetime outside of the Church, but are to be used to guide the people to lead a righteous life pleasing to God, thus helping them find their way to their salvation. We can liken the road from earth to heaven as a very long motorway. On our journey, we might be tired or need to refuel our vehicle, so for a while we come off the motorway to find a suitable motel or fuelling station. Having come off the motorway we become sidetracked from various things and cannot find our way back to the motorway. We need assistance and this is where we need the canons, because the canons are like road signs that direct us in which way to follow, thus helping us return to the motorway.
Today if a woman comes to confess than she had a voluntary abortion, we would not exclude her from Communion for 3 years because instead of helping her return to the Church if would in fact drive her away.
The Church is a hospital for sick souls, Christ is the Head Physician and the Priests are his many doctors specialized in many fields of spiritual ailments. The penances should not be understood as punishments imposed on someone because they transgressed the divine law. They are medicinal to help the sinner attain a better and deeper realization of the enormity of their sin and to imbue in them a longing for virtue.
Christ is love and the Church is love. Priests are not judges of the people, but rather spiritual physicians who with love must find the correct medicine that will help the patience recover from his illness.
Thus the answer to your question is that love and compassion are by far greater than the law. Love is above all the canons and can replace them whenever it is deemed a canon would do more harm than good. But there is also a need for caution. You ask “is following your conscience sometimes better?” How can one be sure that his conscious is correct? If someone follows his own conscience without rules then there is a danger that he will fall into error. Only someone who knows the canons of the Church and has spent many years leading a spiritual life can discern what is right from wrong and he will do this because he has been enlightened with the spiritual laws which guide him how to live. If we have not reached this blessed state which is none other that the state of “sainthood” then at all times we should seek the advice of a priest who can help us stay on the right track and prevent us from falling into the error of self guidance.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher