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Detail from Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, England

In our contemporary society there exists an unhealthy distinction between law and charity. In current political debates we see this in relation to the question of immigration. And even in the Church we have, not least in recent months, seen it in relation to the question of the reception of Holy Communion by those who have been divorced and taken up a second union. Yet at the heart of this morning’s gospel we discover anew the fundamental connection between law and charity, to the end that we can say: when a false distinction is drawn between them, each is reduced in its essential importance and particular value. Indeed, with the Psalmist we affirm: “Mercy and truth and met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85: 10).

Dr Johnson, the great lexicographer and essayist of eighteenth century England, wrote in his life of the polymath Sir Thomas Browne: “the rigorous persecutors of error should . . . enlighten their zeal with knowledge, and temper their orthodoxy with charity; that charity, without which orthodoxy is vain.” And certainly that is so. Saint Thomas Aquinas (a perhaps more reliable figure for us) tells us that the virtue of mercy, which is intimately connected with charity, is “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him” (ST II-II.30.1). Yet both men seem also to suggest that there is a necessity to recognize in the particular situation to which charity is to be applied, a need for healing; for something to be put right. For Dr Johnson this is found in the suggestion that orthodoxy should be tempered by charity, not substituted by it. For Saint Thomas it is in the idea that the compassion that leads to mercy is itself born of a recognition of the misery of another, presumably brought about by some evil or lack of good.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “[the] service of charity is . . . a constitutive element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being.” And elsewhere he said that charity “is a force that has as its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth.” Thus true charity, one which is authentic in the eyes of Christ and his Church, is always at one with the law; that body of precepts by which the Christian faithful are preserved in the community of Love and Truth which is the Church.

This is revealed by Christ to the scholar of the law in today’s gospel. Though the lawyer stands up “to put him to the test,” the Lord praises the scholar’s knowledge of the law, but yet goes on to reveal its true meaning in showing how, as Dr Johnson put it, orthodoxy should be tempered with charity. Because charity “has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth,” it follows that the greatest charity is that lived in obedience to the law, and the greatest obedience to the law is that which has the love of Christ at its heart. In the final canon of the Code of Canon Law this is articulated in an ancient legal maxim: salus animarum suprema lex; the supreme law is the salvation of souls. Christ shows us that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who goes out of his way not so much to go against the law but to fulfil it in a more satisfactory way. And the Lord shows us this even more so in his own obedience to the will of the Father in the sacrifice of Calvary; that perfect act of love which is brought into our midst once more in the sacred action we are here to perform.

As we turn again to the altar, and to enter into that sacred action, let us pray for the grace to know and love the precepts of the Lord. With the Psalmist let us say: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19: 7). And in knowing and loving the law, may our hearts be enlarged by a knowledge and love of Christ, its source; that in encountering him and growing in conformity to his life, we may come one day to find the perfection of love and the fulfilment of his commands in the perfect society of the new and heavenly Jerusalem.