Vol. 6, No. 21
Daughters of Mary Instruction
31 January 2017
Lynn D. Clapper
On the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew continues the story of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus opened his sermon with the Beatitudes, a new type of law that described the hearts of the people of God, but that also challenged Jesus’ Jewish audience to question their observance of the Mosaic Law that was so central to their understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people. As we shall see in the coming weeks, after delivering the Beatitudes, Jesus then began to elaborate on the nuanced differences between his teachings and the teachings of Moses, as well as the error of the interpretations of the Mosaic Law that had become a way of life for the Jewish people. To better understand just what Jesus was telling his disciples and the crowds that followed him that day, let us return to the year 1250 BC, and the book of Exodus in the time of Moses, and delve a bit deeper into the law God gave him on Mt. Sinai, and understand how that Law shaped the history of the people God had chosen for his own.
We return to find Moses still on the mountain with God, who had called to Moses so that he could tell him a series of laws that would dictate the ways that the ancient Hebrews were to live as a chosen people. “This is what you will say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples, though all the earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites” (Exodus 19:3-6). It was Yahweh’s intent that the very way his people lived their lives, both in worship of him, and in community with their fellow Hebrews, would distinguish the Hebrew people as special, set apart for their God alone. While the Ten Commandments were the essence of this code of conduct, Yahweh also specified laws of every sort that governed all aspects of Hebrew life. The covenantal law God gave to Moses was a complete moral, civil, and ritual legislation that defined the life of the ancient Hebrews as a holy people. Yahweh was their God. They were his people.
Moses delivered these laws in the book of Exodus, but the full explanation of God’s detailed plan for Israel continued through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Including the book of Genesis which recorded the ancient beginnings of Yahweh’s people, these first five books of Hebrew Scripture became known as the Mosaic Law. For the Hebrew people, the Law of Moses was much more that a list of laws that described a way of life. Delivered from the bondage of slavery by a creator God who choose the Israelites to be his light to a dark and wanting world, the Israelites were defined as a nation by a covenant with their God that was not bound by time or place or political rule. The Law of Moses was God’s own expression of his relationship with his people that became the very essence of who Israel was as a nation. They were God’s people.
But, the God of Israel was God alone, and the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the covenant between Yahweh and the ancient Hebrews was never an easy one. Commanding his people to serve no gods beside Him, Yahweh called Israel to be his witness in the midst of a culture that worshiped a plethora of gods of every type and disposition. Beginning at Mt. Sinai when the Hebrew people pooled their gold and created a molten calf, the history of ancient Israel describes a chosen people unable to resist the lure of the pagan cultures surrounding them who turned away from their God again and again, but who embraced the Law anew each time Yahweh heard their cry of distress. Over the centuries, as the nation of Israel settled the promised land, endured the chaotic years of the Judges, united as a nation under King David; split into north and south after Solomon; submitted to conquest by Assyria; and went into exile at the hands of the Babylonians, the Hebrew people held fast to the laws of Moses even as Moses had warned Israel that refusing to worship God alone would be the cause of great trouble. “You shall not go after other gods, any of the gods of the surrounding peoples – for the Lord, your God who is in your midst, is a passionate God – lest the anger of the Lord, your God, flare up against you and he destroy you from upon the land” (Deuteronomy 6: 14-15). But, in the years following the devastation of exile, it was the Mosaic Law that guided the resettling of the land and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. In the last centuries of the Old Testament, when Jewish communities had sprung up in all corners of the world, the Law of Moses held together a people who no longer knew themselves as clans, or tribes, or nation, but who still clung to their understanding of themselves as the chosen people of God.
Yet, the experience of exile was a defining moment for the ancient Hebrews. Understanding, at last, the words of Moses and the other prophets who had predicted Yahweh’s impending wrath on a people who continued to put other gods before him, the Jewish people pledged a new and fierce loyalty to the God of Israel and his Law. During the years that followed the exile, as the most devout of the Jewish people tried to resist the Hellenistic influences that threatened to corrupt the Mosaic way of life and the rituals of worship of their God, a tradition of interpretation built up around the Law of Moses that was designed to prevent them from ever again violating the laws that defined God’s holy people. Formulated by leaders and teachers in the Jewish community, these oral traditions changed the Jewish understanding of the Law of Moses, and observing the Mosaic Law became burdensome and meaningless work in itself. Piety was judged… more by legalistic obedience to the Law than by having a heart for God.
On the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we find Jesus early in his public ministry sitting on a mountain and addressing his disciples and a multitude of listeners. Jewish people lived in every corner of the world, yet Jerusalem was still the epicenter of the Jewish faith, and pious Jews traveled there at least once a year to offer sacrifice in accord with Mosaic tradition. But in the five centuries since their return from exile, the Jewish people had lost their heart for the Law. While they still yearned for a Messiah who would restore them to greatness as a people, they did not understand that in their zealous observance of the Law, they had forgotten how to love their God.
Jesus Christ would change all of that. Fully understanding the story of his people who had loved God in times of trouble, but abandoned him in times that were good, Jesus Christ, Son of God, came to dwell among the people chosen to be his and reverse the tide of history. Just as the God of Israel had done time and time again, Jesus would restore his people and give them a new heart. “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days…I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31: 33) Jeremiah had said. As he delivered his sermon on the mount, Jesus assured his followers that they were still the salt of the earth, and they would always be his light to the world. And though the crowds and his disciples listening to Jesus did not understand it yet, Jesus Christ was their God, and he chose them to be his people. Today, Kathleen’s reflection reminds us that Jesus’ words that day still describe the people God chooses to be his. If our witness to God as his people is best expressed by our very lives, the reason can only be that we worship God alone. During the next few weeks, let us listen to the Sermon on the Mount as if we were hearing Jesus’ words for the very first time. Jesus Christ has chosen us. He is our God. We are his people.
The Schocken Bible, Vol. 1 The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox, translator
The New American Bible Revised Edition