People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Reading 1, Deuteronomy 26:16-19
16 ‘The Lord your God commands you today to observe these laws and customs; you must keep and observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.
17 ‘Today you have obtained this declaration from the Lord: that he will be your God, but only if you follow his ways, keep his statutes, his commandments, his customs, and listen to his voice.
18 And today the Lord has obtained this declaration from you: that you will be his own people — as he has said — but only if you keep all his commandments;
19 then for praise and renown and honour, he will raise you higher than every other nation he has made, and you will be a people consecrated to Yahweh, as he has promised.’
Gospel, Matthew 5:43-48
43 (Jesus said) ‘You have heard how it was said, You will love your neighbour and hate your enemy.
44 But I say this to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;
45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do as much?
47 And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional?
48 Do not even the gentiles do as much? You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
Both Jesus, and his ancestors who wrote Deuteronomy, believed that God would reward goodness. Jesus spoke about eternal life as a reward. The problem with the writers of Deuteronomy, is their conviction that God would reward goodness with worldly blessings, for example, as here, that God would reward Israel’s faithfulness with national success. This runs counter to Jesus radical insight, that creation involves God’s equal favour to all creatures. “He causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good.”
Astonishingly, Jesus calls on people to imitate God. They must go beyond the “birds of a feather flock together / you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” morality in which love is for family, friends and compatriots, to discover a harder love, which desires the good even of the enemy. He allows no escape route on grounds of human frailty, “You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
The reason we call Jesus the “Son of God” is the teaching and living of this command: we think he was perfect as the heavenly father is perfect. And he has the impertinence to demand of us a like obedience.
Nothing is really of any importance in the Christian faith other than the acceptance and transmission of this harder love. We, the unlovable, are loved, by God and his children; we, the beloved, love our enemies. To be deflected from the task of loving by any label, “Moslem,” “Neo-con,” “Gay,” “Pro-lifer,” “Terrorist,” “Banker,” that we may stick on a person, is to take leave of Jesus.
This is the new covenant, which does not abolish but rather fulfils the covenant of Deuteronomy: in receiving God’s love for enemies, we must also show it.