Observe Israel’s history in Hebrew Scripture and you will find that the strength and security of the people rose and fell depending on the people’s fidelity to the Law. When Israel was faithful in living out the statutes and decrees given by God and handed on to them by Moses, the people were invincible. When Israel forgot the Law and became fascinated by alien gods, the people crumbled, finally to the point of the destruction of the Temple and the holy city, Jerusalem. Israel was led off into slavery and into the Babylonian Captivity.
In the first reading, Moses promises something remarkable that will flow from fidelity to the Law. The nations will marvel at the Israelites’ strength as a people, their wisdom and intelligence, and it will be immediately apparent that no other nation has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him. In other words, through the observance of the Law, it will be obvious that God is at the center of the people’s lives.
How can that be? What is there about the Law that makes the wonder of Israel come about? The Decalogue directs right-ordered living. Put simply, the commandments call demand that God hold primacy of place in the people’s lives, a primacy that is expressed by reverence for God’s name and keeping holy the Lord’s Day. But that primacy is also seen in keeping the commandments that impose a right ordering of relationships among the people. Put together, the result is a strong people.
In the end, it is all about love. Loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself is the unbeatable combination. Jesus will say that the whole Law and the Prophets are based on the summing up of the two laws of love.
Notice the final sentence of the second reading. The natural tendency is to think of religion as being primarily how the people live out their relationship with God. St. James says: Religion that is pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this – to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Belief in Christ must have an effect on our attitudes toward and relationships with our neighbors. A discussion about who is our neighbor is for another time. Suffice it to say that James warns us that it is not enough to know the texts of Scriptures, that is, to know the Law. There is no virtue in mere erudition. Knowledge must spill over into action. Be doers of the word and not hearers only. From one of the great parables it will become clear that I didn’t notice him/her will get us nowhere as an excuse. Just ask Dives who didn’t notice Lazarus begging at his doorpost. Dives is the epitome of the world’s values of which James warns us to keep unstained.
This Sunday’s Gospel finds Jesus embroiled in controversy. It seems scandal is rising from the fact that some of Jesus’ disciples are not observing the minutiae of the Law. A bit of an aside here. Over the years, students of the Law became fixated on the Law and sought to affix to it laws that governed every possible human thought, word, or deed. That’s how there came to be over 600 laws, and these made their way in the Scripture. According to the Pharisees, the good and faithful Jew was bound to observe them all.
The scandalous behavior the Pharisees had observed was that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands. There is no arguing that sanitation is a good precaution for one’s health’s sake. But what has happened is that multiple purifications only beginning with the washing of hands has become have become matters of law, and therefore, their observance, signs of one’s fidelity to God. The lavations purify one who may have come into contact with someone unclean, a leper, a Gentile, a beaten Samaritan lying by the side of the road. The purifications go on to cover everything imaginable, all of equal importance and weight.
This is the gravitas of the confrontation by the Pharisees: Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands? Notice that Jesus’ response doesn’t touch upon the washing issue. He goes deeper and returns the ball to the Pharisees’ court, so to speak. First, he says, not all laws are of equal importance. There are the great commandments that make up God’s Law. Many of the other laws are merely human tradition, the result of students of the law arguing over the law. Focusing on the Law and its observance says nothing about the human heart. Scrupulosity is not an indication of a depth of faith. Just the opposite may be true.
The main question here is, where is your heart. Is preoccupation with the minutiae of the law actually an expression of the desire to know, love and serve God? Does that quest result in the need to know, love and serve the neighbor? It is, after all, Jesus who identifies love of God and love of neighbor. One cannot love God without loving the neighbor.
There was a famous exchange between Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge. At the time, Muggeridge had moved from atheism to agnosticism and was trying to find his way back to faith. He had been observing Mother Teresa’s charitable work, making it the subject of a documentary that he was filming for British television. He watched her care for abandoned babies and the dying poor. It was messy and exhausting work. Observing in silence for as long as he could, Muggeridge finally asked Mother, “Why do you do what you do?”
Her simple answer was, faith. To which Muggeridge responded that there were many people of faith, but they did not do what she did. There must be something more.
Then Mother Teresa held the hand of a dying, penniless man. She said, “Look at this man in his misery. When I am ministering to him, I am ministering to Christ in his Passion.
There you have it. Simple, isn’t it? It is, when seen through the eyes of faith. Jesus came to do something entirely new. Taking on human flesh, he forever united the human and the divine. In the words of Genesis, God said, Let us make the human in our image and likeness. Through Jesus, God becomes identified with the human. How one treats a human being is how one treats God. That is Mother Teresa’s insight. That is what Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees and his disciples and us to see. This is the attitude that will motivate people in the Kingdom Jesus is bringing when God reigns. In that kingdom, when it comes to law, there will be none more demanding than the law of love.
It is said that when the first Christians were being put to death for their faith, those who looked on were stunned by the care the condemned had for each other and their desire to support each other. See how these Christians love one another! Perhaps that is why the Church began to flourish in that time of persecution, and has continued to do so in every other time of persecution. Many of those who first witnessed that Christian love sought that source of strength and purpose for themselves.
Could this be why Pope Francis is urging the faithful to recognize that what the Church must be about is love. This poorer Church, serving the needs of the poor, must hold the poor in primacy of place. The shepherds must shepherd in the midst of the sheep. Are we getting the idea?
We come together every Sunday for Liturgy. Certainly there is a commandment to do so. But I would pray that that is not the primary reason why we assemble. Rather, we come together to be united in the love of Christ that we celebrate in Word and Sacrament.
It is safe to say that the health of the parish rests on the strength of the love that binds the members together with each other and with Christ. If the stranger who enters the assembly for the first time is struck by how these Christians love one another, s/he will want to stay and be part of that love fest. If that celebration results in the transformation of that people into the Body of Christ, that is, if they are empowered to recognize the Christ within them whose Body and Blood they have shared, and in that recognition go out to bring Christ to the orphan and the widow, to the other poor with whom they come in contact, if it is clear that they are about love and their desire is to serve, others, including the stranger, will marvel at the health of the Church and desire to be part of it.
We don’t even have to talk about the other side of that coin.
Suffice it to say, love is much more demanding than law, and much more freeing, especially if you are willing to die in the process.
“Why does it have to take so long? Why can’t I just be baptized and get on with my life. Phillip baptized the Ethiopian after only a day of catechesis. Why can’t that happen for me?”
The earnestness is sincere and so is the impatience. The readings this Sunday give insight to the Church’s recommendation that a catechumen, one journeying toward Baptism, should go through a full liturgical cycle before making the Lenten journey to the Font. The idea is that the catechumen will have the opportunity to make the full journey through the Gospel readings, experience a full year of worshiping with the parish community, and thereby be in a position to make the commitment that begins with Baptism. The commitment? To die with Christ so as to live with Christ.
It is clear in both the first reading and the Gospel that beginning the journey of faith is one thing. Committing to fidelity for the long haul is another. In the second reading Marriage is praised as the sacrament that is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church. How many couples eagerly promise to live in faithfulness with their spouse until death do them part? How many of those marriages end before five years are out? And how many of the formerly married say in one way or another, “I had no idea what marriage would be like, or how much work it would be to live out a marriage commitment.”
Christ’s love for the Church is the model. We must never forget that Christ’s love proved itself to the shedding of the last drop of blood and water that flowed from his pierced side. No one should ever say fidelity would be easy. Christ certainly did not.
Joshua in the first reading, near the end of his life, and having brought the Israelites to the Promised Land of Canaan, challenges the people to renew their commitment to follow the Lord and not turn away to follow Baal. Some of their ancestors had not been faithful to the Lord. What about them? Make the choice, he says. Then Joshua testifies to his faith and the faith of his family. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” He is saying that they will be faithful to the covenant, faithful to the Mosaic Law, and faithful to G-O-D. The people remember what the Lord did for them through all those years of their formation in the desert. “He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.”
For the past few weeks we have been listening to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel that puts before us the discourse on the Bread of Life that Jesus claims to be. We have heard how central to our lives the Bread must be. Some may have been uncomfortable with the graphic and uncompromising language that Jesus used in the proclamation to the crowds and to his disciples. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” This is a pretty clear either/or statement. There is no room for compromise.
This Sunday’s Gospel, the word means Good News, opens with disciples reeling from what Jesus has said. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Notice that Jesus offers no sympathy to them in their stunned state. Rather he presses the point further that he is making. To speak of the Son of Man ascending to where he was before is to bring in the whole question of the Cross and how that event will be interpreted. Wheat is ground in the mill to become flour. Jesus will be crushed by the way and weight of the Cross. In other words, to be with Jesus on the Way will never be an easy walk – easy to begin, perhaps, but never easy to complete.
Every time we hear the Gospel we have to make a decision to believe or not to believe, to respond and so be strengthened in our conversion, or to say, “Who can believe this?” At this crossroads point of the Gospel, the decision is to accept that Jesus is the Bread of Life or to turn away. Jesus reminds us that it all depends on grace. Jesus knew that some to whom he preached did not come to faith. And worse, he knew that a disciple would betray him. But he also knew that acceptance of his word depended on the gift of faith from the Father. None have it within themselves to do this on their own.
Here I think it is important to reflect on your own experience and to ponder the moment you first believed. Many can recall that moment with vivid clarity. That aha moment is tantamount to the light that breaks on the horizon and puts an end to night. What is as amazing is the awareness that often times faith can come unbidden. For others, faith began after having long run from it. St. Augustine’s experience is not unique in the history of the Church. Augustine marveled when he realized he was a believer having told his mother that he would never follow her ways. “Late have I loved you,” he came to pray. “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” That is speaking through hindsight and amazing awareness. Reflect on your own first moment of faith.
It is also true that some can go through the traces and never come to make that commitment, never having that moment of dawning faith. They are like the crowds that followed Jesus, but never made the decision to be disciples. Even some of those in the pews on Sunday morning can be there out of habit, or to keep peace in the family. But do they believe? Is Jesus the center of their being? Having never been in crisis, they have never had to confront the question. And so they continue on.
They, we all need to hear Jesus ask, “Do you believe this?” Taking the question to heart, we need to make the response. If we wonder how we can do that, remember that grace is there for us in this venture. No one can successfully negotiate faith on his/her own. This Sunday’s Gospel gives us an ample opportunity to reflect and to decide.
Notice that many who heard Jesus, many who were designated as disciples, i.e., many who had made the decision about him, returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. The demands made by faith in Jesus were too much for them. Alas. Recognizing that fact, Jesus asks us today: Do you also want to leave? Have you ever thought about that, thought about life without Christ? I know that I have and the thought chills me. Part of that realization comes from the importance that the community we call Church plays in my life. I cannot imagine life without he Church, no matter how difficult that life becomes.
There is a realization that is important for us to take to heart. The faith journey is not one we make alone. Remember when we spoke of Catechumens earlier? Part of the necessity for their making the journey through the full cycle stems from the importance of their learning what it means to be part of this faith community. They learn by experiencing that community in worship, and come to stand in awe of the wonder of being able to say, “We believe.” The faith community prays for them, blesses them, and encourages them to continue to the Font and beyond.
It is in that process, too, that we come to understand the centrality of Eucharist; why it is that every Sunday we come back to the Table, to gather around the Table, to give thanks at the Table in the sacrifice that is the Eucharist, and to eat and drink from the Bread and Cup on the Table. It is that food that is our strength for the journey. It is in the sharing of that meal that we come to understand the truth that we are one in Christ. It is in eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood that we realize we have come to believe and are convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God, and in believing, know that we have life in his name.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT (continued): DO NOT THINK THAT I HAVE COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets”
In Jesus’ time, it was customary for the scribes and the Pharisees to spend hours arguing about the Law. There purpose was to determine which of the laws was the most important. The arguing was not about the Ten Commandments. Rather, they argued about the more than 600 commandments that had made their way into the Scriptures. These Laws attempted to cover all the possibilities of violation by which a person could act contrary to God’s will,
When Jesus was asked: “Good Master, which of the commandments is the greatest commandment?” that was not an unusual question. The lawyers asked each other the same question every day. Here, however, a sinister motive prompted the question. The experts in the Law asked the question in order to trip him up and so to have a charge to bring against Jesus. To disobey a law was to be unfaithful to God. Such a one could be declared a sinner. Jesus got into trouble because his disciples were seen eating grain without first washing their hands. Jesus made the Pharisees angry because he worked a miracle on the Sabbath. On top of that, he bade the once paralyzed man to “pick up your pallet and go home.” Cleary both actions violated the Law.
If Jesus had spoken out against the Law, he would have been persecuted. To break the Law habitually could have resulted in his being cast out of the synagogue, the Temple, and he could have been stoned to death. His ministry would not have lasted the three years that it did. He welcomed sinners and ate with them, thus violating the Law. He came into contact with lepers and Gentiles. Jesus was accused of all these “crimes” as he stood before Pilate. Thus they crucified him.
What is the new teaching about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus speaks about fulfillment of the Law, not about breaking of the Law. For the Jewish people the Law had special significance. The Law signified the covenant between God and the Jewish people. If God was to be their god and they were to be God’s people, the Law spelled out how they were to live. Obeying the commandments would be an eloquent sign to all the other nations of the wonderful relationship between God and this people.
What about the Prophets? Jesus says that he came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets. Look at the role the great Prophets played in the Lives of the Jews. Remember, to be a prophet is to speak for God a message God wants the people to hear. In Israel’s history, when the people wandered from the Law and became fascinated with the ways of the Gentiles and their gods, the people became weak and vulnerable to those who would oppress them and eventually lead them off into exile and captivity. The Prophets called them back to fidelity. When the Jews were enslaved, the Prophets accused the people of their idolatry and sinfulness. They pointed out the weakness that resulted. But the Prophets spoke also about God’s fidelity to this people even though they had wandered. God’s faithfulness would bring the people out of slavery again. Remember. It was God who led the people out of Egypt. God will restore the people to Israel and to the holy city, Jerusalem – when the people once again become followers of the Law, when the people return to fidelity to God.
So, is Jesus preaching a slavish, even scrupulous following of all six hundred plus commandments in the Law? Perhaps in the beginning he was. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount happens at the beginning of his ministry. It is possible that his thinking changed as his ministry continued and he had increased experience of the people and their lives. Look at the final words of Jesus’ teaching on the Law and the Prophets. “I tell you, unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.” It seems clear that Jesus is saying that fulfilling the minutiae of the Law is not enough. After all, that is what the scribes and Pharisees tried to do. What were they missing? And more important, what could we in our practice be missing?
The Law is not an end in itself. To make it so could result in that situation Jesus held up to scorn. “You strain after the speck in your brother’s eye and miss the beam in your own.” The Pharisees, as they are characterized in the Gospels, were observers of the Law and the judges of those deemed to be breaking the Law. Think of the woman caught in adultery. Remember how the Pharisees taunted Jesus? “The Law of Moses says such a woman should be stoned to death. What do you say?” Notice how careful Jesus was not to give voice to the breaking of the Law as he forced the accusers to confront the error of their judgment. “Let the one of you who is without sin be the first to cast the stone.” In so doing, Jesus gave the Pharisees an opportunity to contemplate and to give thanks for God’s mercy and desire to forgive that they had experienced in their own lives. They could do that if they could admit to being sinners.
We will see the applications of Jesus’ thinking regarding specifics of the Law in the verses that follow this section. For now, it is important for us to look ahead, if you will, at what Jesus will teach his disciples about the new law. God had said to the people, in effect, when you keep the commandments others will know that I am your God and you are my people. Jesus will say, “By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love becomes the Law in the new Way. Love of God. Love of neighbor. As soon as love becomes the norm we find the all-consuming demands of the new Law.
Certainly the Decalogue continues to bind believers. The Ten Commandments govern the basic relationships between people and God, and people with one another. Deuteronomy and Leviticus summarized the Ten Commandments and condensed them into two: Love God with your whole being. Love your neighbor as yourself. These two statements sum up the Law and the Prophets, Jesus will say. The operative word is “love.” Isn’t it interesting how many are rankled by Pope Francis’s emphasis on this theme? How dare he say, “Who am I to judge?” Is he heretical for saying that divorced and remarried Catholics are not ex-communicated?
Do you remember the parable about the Good Samaritan? Probably all too well. In some ways that is unfortunate, because familiarity dulls the impact of the story. The audience to whom Jesus is speaking, the Jews and the Samaritans, considered heretics, are enemies. Besides the Samaritan, the other characters in the parable are prominent figures in Jewish life, figures that slavishly keep the law.
What happens in the parable? An unfortunate man is beaten and robbed and left to die by the side of the road that goes from Jerusalem to Jericho. On their way to Jerusalem for temple worship on that same road travel a priest and a Levite. Each sees the man. Each passes by. There may be many reasons why they ignored the desperate individual and went to the opposite side of the road, but the principal reason was that they not break the Law. They did not want to incur ritual uncleanness that would result from coming into contact with blood. The Samaritan approaches and not only sees the man, but tends to his wounds. He puts the man on the Samaritan’s beast of burden and takes the wounded one to an inn, pays for his lodging and promises to pay for anything that is not covered by his payment. Amazing, don’t you think?
What occasioned the parable? A lawyer had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit everlasting life. Jesus answered him with a question: “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer knew the law well and answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus commended the lawyer for his answer, the man then asked for some limits on the law. “And who is my neighbor.” Maybe he could love his neighbor as long as there were some exceptions to that umbrella term. But the parable states quite boldly that that neighbor law applied even to people one might be tempted to despise.
Jesus will be specific in John’s Gospel when he commands his disciples to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them. When one might be tempted to think that the Love Law surely doesn’t apply excluded because they belong to a hated race, color, creed, or national origin, Jesus says there are no exceptions. Even your enemies must be ones you love and to whom you must do good.
When you think about the new Law Jesus’ disciples are to follow, think of someone who has done ill to you, someone who holds you in contempt. How easy would it be for you to love that person? Not so easy, I would imagine. I know it wasn’t easy for me. But that doesn’t let us off the hook, no if we want to be Jesus disciples.
The survivors of the shooting victims in the church in Charleston shocked the world when they went to the alleged killer’s court hearing and one by one told him they forgave him. Their faith, which was being shared when the attack happened, wouldn’t allow them to not forgive.
That all demanding love has not always been apparent historically in the church’s actions. It’s hard to see love in burnings at the stake. Some would like to see evidence of that kind of judging and condemning today in the church. Then there is Pope Francis washing the feet of non-Christians, both young men and women, and obvious sinners. He was photographed kissing their feet. There is a message there for those open to receive it. It is not about lording over. It is about serving among.
Love fulfills the Law, Jesus says. Love manifests God’s attitude toward those created in God’s image and all creation. But it is not enough to be loved. Those who are loved must let God’s love flow from them and embrace all, especially those deemed unlovable by others, or even by themselves.
“Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the reign of God.” Perhaps it is only when we let God reign in our lives, when Jesus lives in us, perhaps it is only then that one can fulfill the law of love.
It is grace that empowers and makes all the difference in the world.