Deut 11:18, 26-28
When Kathy Wallenta asked me if I would do the homily for today, she admitted that the readings were difficult. Although warned, I saw they were about law; I was a lawyer; so why not. I have since come to agree that the readings are hard, not because they are difficult to understand, but because they are so central to our faith. It’s always hard to talk about central things.
When I was in grade school, the parish priest used to visit our classes and talk about religion. I suppose he wanted to know if we were learning our catechism properly. I remember only one discussion from those visits. We talked about the rules of fasting before Communion. He explained that we couldn’t eat solid food after midnight of the night before Mass, or liquids other than water. But what, we asked, about ice cubes? I think we were born lawyers, every one of us.
This is often how we tend to think about law – as a finely calibrated checklist of rules, designed to distribute credits or debits in each person’s eternal accounts book. The aim in life is to try to ensure that the credits outweigh the debits and so earn us eternal life. This accounting view of law is very far from the vision in the readings today.
The book of Deuteronomy consists of a retelling of the Jewish law. It is framed in the form of a speech by Moses to the people just before they enter the promised land. Moses begins with a summary of all the great deeds God has done for his people, leading them out of Egypt, sustaining them through the perils of the desert, and taking their side in battles with many enemies. He reminds them that none of these favors came because of their own merit. Instead, God freely gave them. Moses says: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you...” Deut 7, 6-7.
The entire law in Judaism is based on a relationship of love between God and the people. God initiates the relationship and invites the people to love Him in return. The core of the law is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deut 6, 4-5. This verse forms the essential core of the Sabbath service in Jewish synagogues to this day. In our reading, these are the words that Moses tells the people to take into their heart and soul, bind on their wrists and foreheads, and teach to their children. All the rest of the law recited in Deuteronomy, from the ten commandments to the minutest prescriptions of religious ritual and the every-day rules of economic and family life, flow from the relationship of love between God and his people.
I have more trouble with the second reading. In fact, I have trouble with all the epistles of Paul. Some of that has to do with his ideas, particularly about women, but part of it is because I can’t help hearing his language through the filter of the Reformation. “Righteousness”, “testified to”, “justified”, “expiation”, “works of the law” – to me all these terms resonate with the fervor of a fundamentalist preacher. As an Irish Catholic in 21st century America, I find they set my teeth on edge. But if we can put aside those cultural biases, Paul’s message becomes much more interesting. In the first two chapters of Romans, Paul has argued that God’s law is known to all peoples, pagans as well as Jews, and all of us have failed to follow it. We have chosen to turn away from God; we have chosen to sin. No one, Paul says, has the right to judge any one else for violating the law of God, because we have all failed. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed, cut off from God forever. Echoing Deuteronomy, Paul insists that our merit is not the question here. What counts is our relationship with God. God’s love for us, which is manifested in Jesus, is a free gift. All that is asked of us is to return that love.
Here is another instance where language gets in the way. Paul says God’s gift is shown “ through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”. The image presented by our history and culture is that of a long list of dogmas which we are supposed to read, check off, yes, yes, yes, and then, if we believe them all, sign at the bottom. And if we don’t agree with every proposition, we lose. But when we look at these words “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” more carefully, we see that Paul speaks about faith in someone, not something. To have faith in someone, means to trust them, have a relationship that inspires confidence in them as a person. And this is what Paul means here, I believe. Not that the gift of God’s grace is limited to those who intellectually assent to the tenets of Christianity, but that it is available to all who trust in God’s goodness, have confidence that God wills the good of us all, the good of all creation.
I have a little granddaughter who just turned three. I am very lucky that we get to see her every week. She is just coming out of the terrible twos, which I remember from raising my own children as a very trying period. But as a grandmother I have found the age to be fascinating. (No doubt in part because she goes home at the end of her day with us.) I am removed just enough from the front lines to watch the development of her conscience. She has no guile, at this age. I can see across her face every sudden impulse to do something she shouldn’t. Then she remembers that Mima (what she calls me) has said no. Then she is angry with Mima for getting in the way of what she wants to do. But she loves Mima and wants to please her. It’s a drama with high emotional stakes. Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other. But however it turns out, we end up with her climbing onto my lap and sucking her thumb while I hug her. Because the ground of everything in our relationship is love, and ultimately it is her trust in my love that allows her to mature and develop the internal controls she needs to live. Love is the basis of law.
Our third reading forms the final section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus emphasizes that what is important is not external obedience to the law, but our internal orientation toward God. Jesus asks for metanoia – a turning at the deepest level towards God. If we put our deepest trust in the God, all else follows. There is no opposition between law and love in the teaching of Jesus, but only a reordering of the priorities. Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He is willing to ignore the precepts of the law, concerning the Sabbath, for instance, when the good of people requires it. Hans Kung, in his study of the historical Jesus, puts the message this way: “God’s cause is not law, but man....The commandments are for man’s sake, not man for the sake of the commandments.”
I think it’s a question of where our gaze if fixed. If we are looking primarily at ourselves, our own interests, we need to concentrate on the rules so we can tell how we’re doing. If we break the laws, we get too many debits, and are anxious. If we stay within the lines, we get lots of credits, and suffer from the more serious condition of self-righteousness. Where the exact lines are becomes a question of personal importance. But if, as Jesus asks of us, we fix our attention on God, then God is the Beloved, and we naturally and joyfully want to do what makes the Beloved happy. The well-being of God’s creation, which includes ourselves, of course, becomes our focus. While laws are useful as guides, developed from centuries of experience, the exact rules are less important than taking care of each other. If a particular law ceases to serve life, it should be ignored. If we have confidence in God, we are joyful, and we are able and happy to act, knowing that if we mess up, we can turn back, climb on God’s lap, and start over, no questions asked. As the reading has it, we have built our house on rock.