In a world of relativism, no laws are absolute. They change with the times, according to the situation and the preferences of the people. What is declared an offence could be sanctioned as sacred the next generation! Laws are therefore mutable. They are simply human enactments of regulations to govern harmony among the peoples. They could be changed when they are no longer useful. This might be so for human laws such as civil laws.
The real question is, are moral laws also changeable? The main problem of relativism is moral relativism. This is the crux of the issue between the secularists and the moralists. For those who believe in God, the moral laws are universal principles for life, applicable at all times and for all generations. These cannot be changed according to situations but humanity remains constant. Moral laws are founded on natural laws which are consistent. When time immemorial moral laws are altered to satisfy man’s indulgences, the implications could be disastrous. What is right becomes wrong and what is wrong becomes right. So much so, we cannot speak of morality today.
This is what Moses meant when he also laid down the immutability of the laws. “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” (Dt 4:2) Does it mean then, that all laws cannot be changed? Not at all! It all depends on what kind of laws we are dealing with. If these are civil laws, customs and rituals, these can be changed according to situations and circumstances. Such laws are contextualized in a specific situation. With the changing situation, such laws must adapt to the lifestyle of the people. For example, in the world of globalization and mass migration, we are no longer speaking of inculturation but trans-culturation. That is to say, we are not speaking of giving a local expression to some alien expressions of faith or customs, but we are referring to an assimilation of cultures. What cannot be changed are moral laws because these are universal laws of nature.
It is within this context of giving life that we are called to approach the laws given to us by God. Moses told the people. “And now, Israel, take notice of the laws and customs that I teach you today, and observe them, that you may have life and may enter and take possession of the land that the Lord the God of your fathers is giving you. See, as the Lord my God has commanded me, I teach you the laws and customs that you are to observe in the land you are to enter and make your own.” The laws and customs given by God were to help the Israelites to live their lives wisely and in unity as they entered the Promised Land. Otherwise, they would be influenced by the negative lifestyle of the pagan cultures.
Indeed, the laws must be seen in relationship to a loving God who cares for His people. This explains why after speaking about the laws given to help them to enter into life, Moses immediately added, “But take care what you do and be on your guard. Do not forget the things your eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your heart all the days of your life; rather, tell them to your children and your children’s children.” In other words, the laws cannot be regarded purely as some abstract laws imposed on the people. The laws are the expression of God’s love for the people whom He saved from Egypt. Moses said, “Keep them, observe them, and they will demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding. When they come to know of all these laws they will exclaim, ‘No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation.’ And indeed, what great nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? And what great nation is there that has laws and customs to match this whole Law that I put before you today?”
The laws are the wisdom of a loving God given to His people so that they can walk in truth and love. They were the means by which God protected the city. “He has strengthened the bars of your gates he has blessed the children within you.” This is how the psalmist praises God, “He sends out his word to the earth and swiftly runs his command. He showers down snow white as wool, he scatters hoar-frost like ashes. He makes his word known to Jacob, to Israel his laws and decrees. He has not dealt thus with other nations; he has not taught them his decrees.”
To observe the laws, they must remember what the Lord had done for them. Unless they have seen God’s act of saving them from the bondage of the Egyptians and saw His mighty works, it would be difficult to observe the laws. We only obey those whom we love and trust. Just like how an expectant mother will obey the laws given by the doctor with regard to her diet and care of her health, so we will obey only those whom we love and trust. St John wrote, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (1 Jn 5:2-4)
Indeed, the laws must not be seen negatively. They are not meant to take away our freedom but to give us true freedom. Because we are weak and unenlightened, the Lord has given us the laws which is His wisdom to guide us in living fully. As St Paul wrote, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane … and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Tim 1:8-11)
However, unless the laws are applied correctly, they become a burden to the people. That was the case of the Jews when the Jewish leaders kept on multiplying the laws. As a consequence, observing the laws became such a burden to the people. This explains why Jesus broke many of the customs of His day, simply because the application was wrong. This is what the Lord said, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.”
Jesus came to perfect the law by giving us the spirit of the laws. Having the right spirit in observing the laws is important. This spirit that perfects the laws is the spirit of love. All laws must be observed for the love of God and for our fellowmen. St Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10) Such laws are universal compared to customs and rituals and ceremonial laws. Besides the Ten Commandments, we have the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount and the New Commandment given by the Lord. (cg Mt 5-7; Jn 13:34) All these are not so much specific laws but they are universal principles by which specific laws are drawn out for application.
All laws must be at the service of authentic love and at the service of truth. This is how we must measure the wisdom of the laws that are enacted in our communities. We must ask whether the laws that are enshrined in our country, organizations and institutions are life-giving and meant for the service of love and truth. When laws marginalize the weak and the minority, when they do not respect the freedom of their informed conscience, they will weaken the people.
Indeed, many of the laws that are enacted are not truly, but only apparently, life-giving. For example, abortion, same-sex union and euthanasia. They are enacted in the name of love but it is for the love of self, not the weak and not for the greater good of society. It is ironical that we approve the immorality of people’s lifestyles promoted in the entertainment world, such as sexual promiscuity, cohabitation, adultery, pornography, violence, cheating and killing as if it is the norm of society. The truth is that when we plant such lustful thoughts into the minds of people, especially the young, these thoughts will be conceived in action. So on one hand, we are hard and harsh in punishing molesters, pedophiles and offenders, but we enact laws that sow the seeds of lust and greed and violence. How can we place the temptation before them, and when they fall into temptation, we accuse them of wrong doing? Those who tempt others to sin are no less guilty than those who are guilty of sin! This is the warning of our Lord. “Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.”