Readings: 2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3; Psalm 119; Matthew 7:15-20
The law contains the terms of the covenant between God and the people. These are not arbitrary prescriptions, a kind of obstacle course to see if people can be obedient to a master. They are the wisdom that, if observed faithfully, establishes people in the way of living that belongs to the covenant relationship with God.
The terms of the relationship, given and agreed between the parties, are broken and renewed again and again. The Bible is dotted with such moments of renewal and re-dedication, when the people are brought back from the consequences of their sins and promise once again to be faithful to what the covenant requires of them. Today's first reading recounts one such moment, during the reign of good King Josiah. He re-dedicates the people to the Lord and to the terms of the covenant and they promise to observe all its ordinances, statutes and decrees and to do it 'with their whole hearts and souls'.
They want it to be not just a legalistic thing, a formal acceptance once again of laws written in a book. They listen to what the covenant asks of them and realise that they have not been bearing fruit appropriate to who they are as the chosen people of God. They have been falling far short and have not been standing as participants in the covenant.
They see that if they are to be fruit-bearing they must live in fidelity to the law, not just agreeing in theory to what it asks of them, but putting that into practice and doing it from their hearts. Josiah is a king of the Deuteronomic reform, a time of serious efforts at renewal in Israel, when prophets like Jeremiah, Hosea and the author of Deuteronomy itself, sought to win the people back to a rich and deep observance of the covenant.
These prophets, along with Ezekiel a bit later, are the great proponents of a religion of the heart. It must come from there if it is to be really effective. Circumcision of the flesh is all very well but it too can remain ineffective, a sterile legality, if there is not a circumcision of the heart to accompany it. In fact the covenant written on stone and which guides people's actions from without, through fear of what might happen if they failed to observe it, is to be replaced by a covenant written on the hearts of men and women which will guide their actions from within, and make those actions be the fruit of love rather than fear, seeing and choosing the good rather than seeing and fearing evil.
As things turned out the aspirations of these great reformers of the Old Testament were eventually fulfilled in the heart of Jesus Christ. It is in the heart of the Incarnate Word of God that the new covenant takes shape and is established. It is through the shedding of his blood, the blood flowing through that heart, that the new covenant is sealed. Confirmed by the love and obedience of Jesus, this new covenant is intended for all people. It is fulfilled in the fruit we bear just as it is established in the fruit borne by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection.
As individual believers we cannot claim to be better, morally or spiritually, than our ancestors in the Old Testament. So there are times when we too fail to stand as participants in the covenant. There are times when we are not faithful as participants in the covenant ought to be faithful. But there is always the reconciling mercy of God - this is guaranteed in the same blood in which the covenant is sealed - so that we can turn, stand again, and by that same mercy bear fruit worthy of the call we have received.