Sunday, 6 March 2011

Week 09 (Year A), Sunday -- 6 March 2011

Readings: Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28; Psalm 30; Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27

Beware the lure of the second reading. You probably know how the readings are chosen for these Sundays in ordinary time. Each year we read more or less continuously through one of the gospels and the first reading is chosen to go with the gospel reading. The second reading is separate. For that we read continuously through various letters of St Paul and there is no necessary link between the second reading and the gospel and first reading.

We need to be careful then that the second reading might pull us in a particular direction in thinking about the gospel. It is a particular danger today with Paul’s clear contrast between works of the law and salvation by grace. It could pull us towards a particular ‘groove’ into which it is easy to slip fairly often in interpreting gospel passages. The groove I mean is one that would make too easy, too simplistic a contrast between the ‘old law’ on one side and the ‘new law’ on the other. The old law, so this groove tells us, is burdensome, external, many in its requirements, Jewish, not so good. The new law is less burdensome, internal as a matter of the heart, making fewer demands, Christian, better. Apart from the fact that this is not quite accurate to what we are presented with in the gospel, it is also quite dangerous because it is a groove that has led Christians over the centuries not only to think about Judaism in particular ways but to treat Jewish people in particular ways.

So leaving the second reading to one side for now, what we have just heard are the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount. It is very striking how Jewish the teaching of that sermon is. There is practically no verse that does not echo and even quote some text from the Old Testament. It is itself the realization of what Jesus says in the middle of it, that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to bring them to completion. The law, the prophets, the writings: there are many references in all of these on which the teaching of the sermon on the mount is based. It is an inspiring, radical presentation of one strand of Jewish thinking, a development of it to be sure, but still in the line of familiar Jewish teaching.

Here, for example, is a quotation from a biblical commentary, as it introduces the work of one of the important personalities in the Bible. In speaking about the teaching of this person it stresses ‘his conception of the law as an ‘inward’ force, his respect for the function of love in true religion, his concern for the person as an individual’. Now who might that be? The law as an inward force? The function of love in true religion? Concern for the person as an individual? It is not, as we might think, Jesus who is being introduced but the prophet Jeremiah and it comes from the Jerusalem Bible’s introduction to his writings. What we might regard as the novelties of the sermon on the mount – a religion of the heart, an emphasis on love, concern for individuals – are already found in the teaching of Jeremiah. He it is who speaks about ‘circumcision of the heart’: it is all very well having your body circumcised but what matters is a circumcision of the heart. He it is who speaks about a new covenant, one not now written on tablets of stone but written on human hearts. Jeremiah gives a central place to love. In this he is influenced by the prophet Hosea, who also has much to say about love, about God’s love for the people and their love in response.

Another book which, the scholars tell us, originates in the neighbourhood of Jeremiah, is the Book of Deuteronomy from which today’s first reading comes. This is the book with which, we might say, Jesus arms himself in his struggle with the devil. Just before the sermon on the mount, not long before in Matthew’s account, we read about Jesus’ temptations and in each case he replies with Deuteronomy: ‘man does not live on bread alone’, ‘obey the Lord your God and serve him only’, ‘you must not put the Lord your God to the test’.

So the Sermon on the Mount emerges within this strand of Jewish thinking and is an inspiring development and presentation of it. It is radical, yes, but it is also within this tradition. Another thing that tempts us towards the easy groove – old Jewish law not so good, new Christian law good – is that we assume Jesus is already in conflict with the Pharisees and that he is attacking them in the Sermon. But there is not much of that going on yet, at least as Matthew recounts the story.

It is, surely, a concern of Judaism as well as of Christianity, of all great religious traditions, that their adherents would be concerned about things reaching the heart. What will get this teaching, this example, these requirements, into our hearts? If nothing else a concern for sincerity, the desire not to be hypocritical, will raise this issue. How is it to find its way into the heart and soul? The first reading speaks of this: ‘put these words of mine in your heart and soul’. We might find the Jewish custom of phylacteries quaint, putting the little box with the texts in it on your forehead so that it will be near your mind, putting in on your arm so that it will be near your heart, but it is no more quaint than scapulars and medals and icons and all the other ways in which we try to keep our minds and hearts fixed on what we believe, ways in which we try to bring what we believe into our hearts and minds.

But if the way to the kingdom of heaven is not through religious practices like these alone, neither is it through what we might regard as more sophisticated religious practices. ‘It is not those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven’, Jesus says. So not those who give inspiring homilies or lectures in theology, that doesn’t guarantee anything either. And neither do works of impressive spiritual power, even prophecy, exorcisms or other miraculous things.

So who is that gets to enter the kingdom of heaven? Well it is the one, Jesus tells us, ‘who does the will of the Father’. This is the person who enters the kingdom of heaven. Who has done the will of the Father? Well Jesus is the only one who has done it, who has observed the law, whether it is the old law or the new law. How is the will of the Father done? It is done in time of suffering and loss, it seems. To go back to Jeremiah and Deuteronomy, these texts were written at a time of great crisis for God’s people, a time of loss and exile, when all the institutions and structures of their religious life were taken away: the Temple destroyed, the people exiled, Jerusalem occupied. When it seemed as if everything was lost, then these beautiful texts about love and a religion of the heart were composed.

So it was also in the life of Jesus, through the experience of suffering and loss, the loss of everything and the need to trust completely in his Father, it was then that the new law was established. Jesus did not give us the new law in the Sermon on the Mount, he gave it to us on Calvary. This is what we believe, that the new law is not an alternative code, an easier legislation, another text even if it is a shorter one. The new law is the love that makes the observance of the law possible. The new law is the grace of the Spirit, the love come into the world through Jesus, which makes it possible for us to do what is good, to observe the law, to choose virtue.

And that brings us back to the second reading and Paul’s comment there about faith, and faith as the only way of entering into salvation. It is in our openness to the Father, and to the Father’s will in our lives, an openness we learn only, it seems, in the way we respond when we suffer.

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