Unless something absolutely unexpected happens, next weekend we will know who the next President of the USA is, thanks to this Tuesday’s election. A week ago parliamentary elections took place in Ukraine. Both events seem to be similarly democratic, but the latter has been widely accused of being rigged by the current Ukrainian government. There are many autocratic, despotic and undemocratic governments all over the world, holding farcical elections that in fact are only fig leaves. It is astonishing how much the tyrants need to legitimate their power as if acquired in a legal way. Similar tactics are used by fraudsters or politicians; caught red-handed, they tend to justify their actions as remaining within the letter of the law, though outwith basic decency and common sense. Law seems to be the ultimate answer to our social problems; calls for new or stricter regulations make headlines on an almost daily basis, from appalling criminal offences to packaging of food.
Once, representatives of a big fast food chain paid a visit to the Pope and offered a huge donation to the Vatican in return for a little change to the Lord’s Prayer: replacing bread with a burger. Despite the offer getting bigger and bigger the Pope remained more and more unconvinced. When eventually their bid turned out to be a complete failure, the representatives wondered how much the Pope had been paid by bread makers to succeed. The European Union is a byword for bureaucracy, specifying in the finest details things which seem to be obvious, like the curvature of a banana. But last year the US Congress classified tomato sauce, for topping pizza, as vegetable matter, and miraculously fast food became healthy food. Law seems to serve the interests of particular business or political groups. Law doesn’t only describe and regulate our reality; it has a tendency to create and to re-shape it.
For many of us, law looks like a maze. To find the way through we need directions or guides; this provides a living for solicitors and legal advisors and makes them influential figures in our society. Very soon their knowledge and influence can play an important role on deciding the future of our country.
The law of Israel, ascribed to Moses, was pretty demanding and detailed in all aspects of religious, social and private life. Jewish lawyers were having long disputes on the importance of particular rules and their precedence. The question raised by the scribe in today’s gospel echoes those discussions. The simplicity of Jesus’ answer is striking: love God and love your neighbour and that’s it. The only problem is that our understanding of ‘love’ is all but simple. And our language doesn’t help, as in English we can ‘love’ everything: people, animals and things. Even one fast food chain’s slogan is: ‘I’m loving it’. In my native language there is a substantial linguistic distinction: we ‘love’ people or pets, but we ‘like’ things. In the Greek language there are three different words translated as ‘love’ in English, ranging from the sensual and sexual to the sacrificially selfless one. Jesus speaks about the latter, using rather a legalistic term of commandment, which might sound a little contradictory.
The explanation given by the man and praised by Jesus hits the right note: the balance. Rules give shape to a foggy and blurred idea of love; love prevents law from falling into soulless, senseless legalism. Love and law should always go hand in hand, with love slightly ahead.