Mar 12, 2022: Saturday of the First Week of Lent

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 26:16-19

Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“This day the LORD, your God,
commands you to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then,
to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you;
and provided you keep all his commandments,
he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made,
and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God,
as he promised.”

The title “Deuteronomy” comes from the Septuagint deuteronomion, which means “second law.” Moses is addressing a new generation of Israelites, all those who would have been under the age of twenty when the exodus began almost 40 years earlier. These “new” Israelites gathered in Moab to hear Moses restate the law to them.

In today’s first reading, Moses is declaring to the Israelites that they are God’s sacred people, his covenant partners, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with such a privilege.

Moses spoke to the people, saying: “This day the LORD, your God, commands you to observe these statutes and decrees.

Moses emphasizes the fact that the commandments he is speaking to them about are God’s; they are not dictates of his own wisdom or anyone else’s.

Be careful, then, to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.

The people are to be faithful and uphold their covenant responsibilities to God.

Today you are making this agreement with the LORD: he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees, and to hearken to his voice.

Moses outlines the people’s part of the covenant, using the typical language of contracts and pacts. One contracting party has the other declare or swear something.

In this case, the people are to swear to obey God’s commandments and be attentive to his word.

And today the LORD is making this agreement with you: you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you; and provided you keep all his commandments, he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made, and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God, as he promised.”

And now Moses describes God’s part of the covenant, using the same contractual language. Two things in particular that God will do are called out: that he will make them renowned among the nations within his praise, and, in order to do that, he will make them holy.

This is truly amazing. However, notice the conditionality: God will only do this if the people keep his commandments.

By treating man in this way, God shows himself to be both near to man and far above him. The mutual commitment of God and men in the Covenant is not a simple business-like transaction; it is something enduring, something which is perpetually being renewed.

“Committed! How much I like that word! We children of God freely put ourselves under an obligation to live a life of dedication to God, striving that He may have complete and absolute sovereignty over our lives” (Saint Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge, 855).

Psalm 119: 1-2, 4-5, 7-8

R. Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!

The entirety of Psalm 119 has to do with the Law of God, which is mentioned in every verse as one of nine distinct terms: law, precepts, ways, decrees, commandments, statutes, ordinances, words, promises.

The emphasis on the importance of the Law, in its Covenant context, is reminiscent of the book of Deuteronomy, providing a direct connection to our first reading.

Blessed are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who observe his decrees, who seek him with all their heart.

From the very first verse, attention is focused on the Law and obedience to the Lord’s commandments, echoing the more general assertion found in Psalm 1:1-2: “Blessed is the man… (whose) delight is in the law of Lord.”

You have commanded that your precepts be diligently kept. 

The psalmist acknowledges his obligation to keep the law, and to mind it carefully and constantly.

Oh, that I might be firm in the ways of keeping your statutes! I will give you thanks with an upright heart, when I have learned your just ordinances.

The desire to keep the Law is a prerequisite for offering sincere praise.

I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.

The psalmist endeavors to perfect himself in his religion and prays to God not to leave him to his own devices.

God has made his Law known, and has spoken his word. This is what orients the psalmist’s life, and it is this that he seeks to obey.

Gospel – Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,

‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Once again our gospel reading is from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ re-interpretation of the law continues.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

The precept of loving one’s neighbor is quoted from Leviticus 19:18 (today’s first reading). The second part of this saying, “hate your enemy,” is actually not in the Law of Moses; Jesus is referring to a widespread rabbinical interpretation which understood “neighbor” as meaning “Israelites.”

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,

Jesus corrects this misinterpretation of the Law: for him, everyone is our neighbor (see also the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37). Our enemy is evil itself (i.e. sin), but not the sinner.

Jesus himself put this into practice with those who crucified him (Luke 23:24), and he continues to act in the same way toward sinners who rebel against him and despise him.

Consequently, the saints have followed this example — like Saint Stephen, the first martyr, who prayed for those who were putting him to death (Acts 7:58-60).

that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Jesus is insisting that the disciples’ love must be patterned after God’s love, which is given unquestioningly to the just and the unjust alike. This is the apex of Christian perfection: to love, and pray for, even those who persecute and hate us.

It is the distinguishing mark of the children of God.

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

If Christ’s disciples only love those who love them, but harm those who harm them, they are merely fulfilling the admonition “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

In teaching this, Jesus refers to two despised classes among the Jews: tax collectors and Gentiles (i.e., pagans).

The Roman Empire had no officials of its own for the collection of taxes; in each country, it used local people for this purpose. The global amount of tax for each region was specified by Roman authorities, and the tax collectors levied more than this amount, keeping the surplus for themselves. This led them to act rather arbitrarily, which was why the people hated them.

In the case of the Jews, insult was added to injury by the fact that the chosen people were being exploited by Gentiles.

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In a sense, this verse summarizes the entire fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, including the Beatitudes. By the kind of love Jesus describes, the disciples will be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

The Hebrew word for “perfect” (téleios) means complete, undivided, grown to full stature. God certainly is complete and undivided, the essence of righteousness and splendor.

Strictly speaking, it is quite impossible for a created being to be as perfect as God. What Jesus means here is that God’s own perfection should be the model that every faithful Christian tries to follow, even though he realizes that there is an infinite distance between himself and his creator. That infinite distance is surmounted by the grace of God, if we allow it.

This is the standard to which the disciples must strive, and this standard is what makes the interpretation of Jesus so radical.

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