It’s obvious that we need laws. We should respect and follow them as faithfully as possible as long as they are just laws. But we have to understand that laws, which in the end come from God, are formulated and articulated by us and therefore are subject to varying human conditions, such as the prevailing culture at the time the laws were made, etc. It’s for this reason why some exceptions can be made in obeying these laws.
We are reminded of this fact of life in that gospel episode where some leading Jews complained to Christ about his disciples doing something unlawful during the Sabbath. That unlawful thing was nothing other than that these disciples picked grains in the field to eat because they were hungry. (cfr. Mt 12,1-8)
That was when Christ clarified to them what the real intent of the Sabbath law was. He explained that exceptions can be made. “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry,” he said, “when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?”
Still more: “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent?”
Then he explained why such exceptions can be made. “I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
It is quite clear that laws are made to serve our ultimate end, and that can only be that we be led to God, our original source and ultimate end. Our laws should be such that they should not negate nor even undermine the achievement of this fundamental purpose of the laws. Even our traffic laws, so insignificant if impacted with our ultimate end, should respect this fundamental purpose.
But what do we have? We sometimes absolutize our laws as if they are the ultimate purpose in our life. They can be so rigidly and indiscriminatingly applied to all cases when there can be exceptions or even exemptions that can be made. We fall into some kind of legalism.
And nowadays, there are even laws that undermine the ultimate purpose of our life, that is, our proper relation with God. Christ himself complained about this. “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mk 7,8) We are now making ourselves as the ultimate lawgiver, as if we are the creator of the universe.
We have to be careful with our tendency to fall into what is called as legalism, which is a way of making our human laws so absolute as to regulate even matters of conscience that they become the end in themselves. Legalism is when we make our human laws so absolute that they cannot stand any more improvement, enrichment, or even revision and revocation.
Legalism is when we get too obsessed with following the letter of the law at the expense of recognizing the true spirit of the law. It is usually characterized by rigidity and heartless treatment of people, especially those disadvantaged by a given law.
This is not to say that our laws are useless. No. Laws are always necessary and very useful. But they should be treated as means only, not as ends. As such, they cannot be treated as if these laws are the only laws that have to be followed. In a given situation or case, other laws may be followed.*