IT’S an idiomatic expression that means “to not understand or appreciate a larger situation, problem, etc., because one is considering only a few parts of it.” It’s an expression that aptly describes what was dramatized in that gospel episode where Christ was accused by a Pharisee who invited him for dinner of not observing the protocol of washing hands before the meal. (cfr. Lk 11,37-41).
“Oh, you Pharisees!” Christ said. “Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?”
With those words, Christ was trying to tell his host that he, being the son of God which the Pharisees could not believe, ought to be exempted from that detail of washing since he was trying to show them that he was the maker of both “the inside and the outside” of things.” In other words, the host missed to get the bigger and more important point Christ was showing him due to a tiny detail that blinded him from seeing it.
It’s a danger that we should be most wary about, because it can also happen to us quite often. It’s when we become too legalistic or too formalistic in our interpretation of certain things that we miss the more important part of a situation or issue. We would be missing the true spirit of a law, or get so trapped in the details that we fail to see the whole picture.
We need to be keenly aware of this common danger and do everything to protect ourselves from it and to fight it, since it will always be around, given our human condition here on earth.
The secret again is to be in vital union with Christ, referring everything to him, especially our legal and judicial systems, and the ways we make, interpret and apply our laws.
Christ clarified this point in so many words when he told the Pharisees who questioned him about why his disciples were doing something that was forbidden in the sabbath, that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (cfr. Mk 2,23-28).
We have to understand that all our laws should be based on what is known as the natural law that in the end is a participation of the divine eternal law of God, our Creator and the first and ultimate lawgiver.
And that part of natural law that is specific to man is called the natural moral law that would recognize, as its first principle, God as our Creator and source and end of all laws. It is the law that would lead us to be God’s image and likeness, and children of his, sharers of his divine life.
A legal system not clearly based on this fundamental principle about laws would already be a system that is defective ‘ab initio.’ A legal system that is based only on some human consensus would put the spirit of the law in full subservience to the letter of that law.
This kind of legal system is what is referred to as legal positivism. This means that the laws are valid not because they are rooted in moral or natural law, but because they are enacted by some human authority and are accepted by society as such.