Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32
May 31-June 1 , 2008, Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Today's readings might seem a little contradictory. We start off with Moses telling the people of Israel that they must obey the commandments if they are to be blessed. Then we have Paul writing to the mixed Gentile and Jewish community in Roman telling them that justification comes as a pure gift from God. It is not earned by obeying the commandments (the Law). Then comes the Gospel passage from Matthew and Jesus tells us that we have to do even more than just obey the commandments, or drive out demons or prophesize in God's name if we are to enter the kingdom of God.
So what is going on here?
Our readings today do not really give us mixed signals because it is not that either we obey the commandments so that we can enter the kingdom of heaven, or we are justified by faith, by the gracious gift of Christ.The reality is that both of those are true at the very same time.
Granted we need to work a little here to be able to understand this. In the first place, we need to understand what Jesus is talking about when he talks about the kingdom of heaven. He is not talking about what happens to us after we die. Jesus continually, and without exception, proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is at hand. It is right here and now. It is not something that has to do with after we die or the last judgement or any of those more popular notions that have become attached to those phrases. Going to heaven or entering the kingdom of heaven means entering into a full loving relationship with God, where God loves us and we love God back, passionately and without reservation. And we are called to do that here and now so that this world will be transformed into the kingdom of heaven.
Secondly, I think we can get a much better idea of what all this salvation or justification stuff, this faith versus good works stuff is about by looking at our own human experience.
How many parents here can imagine your child doing something so bad that you stop loving them and never want to see them or even think of them again? It's almost impossible to even imagine such a situation. And if we sinful, mortal, finite human beings can love that way, how much more is that true for God. God cannot imagine anything so bad that God will stop loving us.
So if you are going to love your child no matter what, what is the point of them being good? We have already established that a child does not have to be good to get you to love them. Why be good? Obviously we want our children to be good because that is the best thing for them. As a matter of fact, they cannot even take advantage of all that your love brings them, unless they are "good". The same is true for our relationship with God. We do not obey the commandments to make God love us. We cannot enter into the kingdom of God by obeying a set of rules or following some practice, any more than a child can make his or her parents love him or her by acting a certain way. What we call commandments are really a set of conditions by which we can tell we are in love with God.
My almost 6 year old grandson Dexter would not be entering into the love I have for him if he runs to me and gives me a big hug when I see him because his father told him to. No matter how perfectly he executed that command, he would not be entering into my love regardless of how much I love him. My eighteen year old grand daughter Kaitlin would not be entering into the love I have for her if she kissed me before getting out of the car when I drop her off at Nashoba because her mother told her to do that. No matter how perfectly she executed that command. In order to enter into the love I have for them, Dexter and Kaitlin have first to realize that I love them and how much I love them, and then they have to respond to that love by applying some "commands" or better, learned behavior, about how to respond in a way that lets them experience the fullness of that love. They know how to respond to my love because they have seen their parent, my son in Dexter's case or my daughter in Kaitlin's, hug me or kiss me when we meet or leave, in a way that leaves no doubt that this is a loving response.
The same is true of our faith, of what God calls us to. We need to become aware of how passionately, how generously, and how faithfully God loves us. Then we need apply those commands or example of how to respond to that love. Take coming to Mass. How many parents complain that their children don't like to come to mass? What is the example that you have given them? What is the example that all of us have given the young people in this community? Do we come to mass because we are fulfilling a requirement, obeying a commandment? Who wants to do that?
When you go to someone's house that you love and that loves you, what is the first thing you do? Do you just walk in the house and sit down somewhere? Don't we seek out the person we are coming to visit and greet them in some way? Whose house is this? Whose love have we come to celebrate and give thanks for and to enter into? How do we greet Christ? Yes, by genuflecting in a loving way to his real presence in the tabernacle. Do we do it in a way that shows how much we love Christ?
When someone at that gathering starts telling a story about the person we love or someone they love, how do we respond? Do we pay attention? Do we strain to hear every word? Do we enter into that story so deeply that we cry sometimes or laugh sometimes at the memory of that familiar story or event? How do we respond here at Mass to those family stories in the readings or in the beautiful words of the preface or the eucharistic prayer?
If we have gathered at our loved one's house for a birthday or anniversary, how do we respond when people start singing Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary? Do we barely move our lips or generate any sound? Do we look around those nearest us worrying what they think of our singing? What do we do here at Mass? When we sing the responsorial psalm or say the Creed or the Our Father?
How do we respond when our loved one serves up some special dish that they put a lot of effort into making? Do we just take some and plop it in our mouths and rush out to turn on the TV? How do we receive communion, our very Lord and Savior, the Creator of all the universe, who poured out his life so that we might experience the fullness of his love for us?
Do we show up week after week for dinner and never help set the table or wash the dishes or bring a plate of chocolate chip cookies? If that loved one needed help mowing the lawn or fixing the hole in the fence out back or washing the car would we just assume someone else will help with that? Or worse do we just not show up most of the time when we are invited, figuring there will be so many people there, your loved one will not miss you?
You get the point. We are not saved by following commandments and we are not saved just because God loves us no matter what. Our readings today give us a clear picture of the process humans can follow to participate in God's love. When we are young in our faith, we look to the commandments and rules and rites to show us how to respond properly to God's love. As we get more mature in our faith we begin to realize how deeply God loves us, and how blessed we are in that love and we start to respond. We follow the same practices as we were commanded but they are now actions that come from love, that go beyond the decrees and statutes to fully share in the love God give us.
If we build our faith on this rock, we show wisdom beyond our age, and experience tremendous blessing. If we do not, it would be hard to find a bigger fool.