In a 1968 Catholic Biblical Quarterly article, Quentin Quesnell tackled the distinction between "Gospel" and "law." The latter, Quesnell wrote, is usually "a regulation of good order for practical living; the former, "a fundamental challenge to the believing Christian to live up to the revelation of the cross and resurrection."
The authors of the Christian Scriptures certainly understood Quesnell's distinction. But even the ancient Jews who never experienced Jesus believed their Mosaic Law was more than just a guide for practical living. The authors of the Hebrew Scriptures often proclaimed that Yahweh's laws arose from Yahweh's relationship with Yahweh's people " a relationship they expected the Chosen People to imitate " and not from Yahweh's desire that things "run right."
We see this ideal started in the first reading (Ex 22:20-26). Jews are not to care for aliens and the poor because such behavior promotes good social order, but because Yahweh both "hears the cry" of those who are helpless and is "compassionate" to them. Yahweh's actions should be Yahweh's people's actions.
Jesus' followers carried this concept one step farther. Since Christian faith starts with Jesus' death and resurrection, they believed that every faith action must revolve around dying and rising. Just as the followers of Yahweh's Torah tried to imitate Yahweh, the followers of Yahweh's Son tried to imitate Him.
Paul emphasizes this principle in the second reading (I Thes 1:5-10), our earliest Christian writing. "You became great imitators of us and of the Lord," the Apostle writes. But then he quickly reminds them about the death and resurrection such imitation entails. They had received "the word despite great trials, with the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit."
Since Jesus' word is always a call for "metanoia" " a complete switch of our value system " no one can truly receive that word unless he or she is willing to endure the suffering such a transformation brings. Paul is describing the Thessalonians' metanoia when he informs them of their neighbors' comments on their changed behavior.
"Throughout every region," Paul boasts, "your faith in God is celebrated....People...are reporting what kind of reception we had from you and how you turned to God from idols, to serve Him who is the living and true God, and to await from heaven the Son He raised from the dead."
But to attain such a respected life, the Thessalonian community first had to experience the death of metanoia. Even their neighbors could see and testify that they were no longer the persons they had once known. Those people were dead; a new, Gospel-formed people had come alive in their place.
Ironically, a law-formed people, the Pharisees, give Jesus an opportunity to teach Gospel (Mt 22:23-40). In His response to their query about "the greatest commandment of the law," Jesus reveals the motive behind His death and the force behind His resurrection.
Love and death
Quoting two well-known commands of the Mosaic Law, Jesus answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind....And...you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Only those who give themselves to others in love can understand the death contained in Jesus' command to love. Love is never "a regulation of good order for practical living." To love another is to become so deeply one with the loved person that we not only go beyond good order and practical living, but we also actually die to ourselves in the process.
No wonder we Christians find it so difficult to defend our "seamless garment" pro-life stance. It's not because of some regulation that we're against abortion, capital punishment, retaliation and competition. Those who aren't Gospel-driven will always find practical, order-filled reasons to permit such practices. The only reason we can give for our strange, challenging behavior springs from the Good News that, for us, death leads to live, just as it did for Jesus.