Mar 23, 2022: Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9

Moses spoke to the people and said:
“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
which I am teaching you to observe,
that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land 
which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 
Therefore, I teach you the statutes and decrees
as the LORD, my God, has commanded me,
that you may observe them in the land you are entering to occupy.
Observe them carefully,
for thus will you give evidence
of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations,
who will hear of all these statutes and say,
‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?

“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard
not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen,
nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”

Just before his death, God charged Moses to again proclaim the Law he received at Mount Sinai to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. This re-proclamation constitutes the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch. The name is derived from the Greek word deuteronomion, or second law – not to indicate a new law, but a second telling of the Law.

Moses’ audience is the new generation of Israelites: all those who would have been age 20 or younger when the great exodus began 40 years earlier. In having the Law restated, Yahweh is reminding them that his covenant with Israel is made with all generations (29:13), both present and future: it is an everlasting covenant.

Moses spoke to the people and said: “Now, Israel, hear

Shema, the Hebrew exhortation to hear, is a solemn summons used to assemble people for consultation, worship, or war. It stresses the importance of what is about to be said.

the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe,

A statute (hōq) is a positive decree of Law that has been chiseled into stone. A decree (mishpāt) is a judicial decision.

that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, God told him: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation…” (Genesis 12:1-2). This promised land is the land the Israelites are about to enter.

Therefore, I teach you the statutes and decrees as the LORD, my God, has commanded me, that you may observe them in the land you are entering to occupy.

Note that this gift of land is contingent on the Israelites’ obedience. Some blessings from God are given freely, with nothing required in return (for example, the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3). Others, like possession of the promised land, were conditional.

Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’

Observance of the law is not only for Israel’s sake; their compliance will serve as a witness to other nations.

The very life of Israel, shaped by obedience to the law, will be an eloquent lesson for all. This implies a privileged position of the Hebrew people, chosen as they are by God from all the nations of the earth, as well as a universal mission for them — a mission that will find its fulfillment in the future spread of the Church throughout the world.

For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”

The main argument Moses makes for keeping the law is the fact that God is so near and accessible to his people. Other nations will recognize this graciousness of the one God of Israel, who instituted a relationship with his people and is concerned for their welfare. Israel’s response in the form of obedience would lead the nations to conclude that only a great people would merit such a God.

These bold claims are intended as an incentive for obedience rather than as grounds for boasting. It instilled a respect for the law that survives to this day.

“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,

Obeying God’s law requires effort and diligence. Human frailty leads us to quickly forget God’s commandments; our interest and fervor fade easily; we are surrounded by temptation.

but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”

The kingdom of God in Israel was designed to be perpetual; therefore, Moses exhorts them to preserve and transmit their knowledge and worship of God into posterity. Parents in particular must take care to teach their children the fear of God and train them up in observance of all his commandments.

Psalm 147: 12-13, 15-16, 19-20

R. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem.

Today’s responsorial psalm comes from the final stanza of Psalm 147, which praises God’s protection of and solicitude toward the people of Israel.

Glorify the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.

Both Jerusalem, the capital of the nation, and Zion, the mountain upon which the city was built, came to represent the people. They are called upon directly to praise God.

The summons to praise is followed by a listing of some of the many wonderful works for God that elicit such praise. All of them point to the uniqueness of the bond that holds God and this people together.

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; he has blessed your children within you.

God protects the people by fortifying the city. The ancient practice of building walls around cities provided them with a defense against possible attack and gave them a vantage point from which to observe the activity outside the walls. As strong as these walls might have been, the city was somewhat vulnerable at its gates, where all normal traffic had to be accommodated.

The psalmist calls the people to praise God, who has strengthened them precisely at their most vulnerable spot.

He sends forth his command to the earth; swiftly runs his word!

All these blessings are manifestations of God’s powerful word (Genesis 1:3-26; Isaiah 55:10-11), which is personified here.

God’s word is like an emissary who runs swiftly throughout the earth, both proclaiming and bringing about what has been proclaimed. God speaks, and it is accomplished. God promises to protect and to provide for the people, and it is done.

He spreads snow like wool; frost he strews like ashes.

The praise that Jerusalem offers to God also includes acknowledgment of his command over the elements (snow, frost).

He has proclaimed his word to Jacob, his statutes and his ordinances to Israel. He has not done thus for any other nation; his ordinances he has not made known to them.

The same divine word that created the universe has been given to Israel in the law and has made them an exceptional people.

It is God’s word that will ensure God’s continued protection and care of Israel; no other nation has been so blessed with such a unique relationship with the creator of the world. No other nation has been given God’s law of life.

This is the people of God. This privilege is the reason to praise God!

Gospel – Matthew 5:17-19

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Today’s gospel is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus stresses the perennial value of the Old Testament. It is the word of God; because it has divine authority, it deserves total respect.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.

“The law” and “the prophets” were the two major sections of Old Testament scripture. Jesus’ teachings were so unprecedented that some falsely accused him of rejecting that tradition.

I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

Jesus’ audience looked upon their Mosaic Law as the summary of all wisdom: it is the self-revelation of God, a complete and secure guide of conduct.

Jesus does not reject the law, but reinterprets it and clarifies its meaning. He goes to the heart of what the commandments demand. His emphasis is on mercy, not legalistic minutiae; on far-reaching love, not destructive petty details; on positive commitment, not prohibitions.

In correcting their misinterpretations, Jesus fulfills the law, to give it all the richness that the Jews believed it had.

Amen, I say to you,

“Amen” is a solemn oath that the truth is being told. The phrase “I say to you” serves to emphasize the authority with which he speaks.

until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter

Literally, “little horn.” Probably the small decorative mark added to many Hebrew consonants in the square script (i.e., a tittle).

will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.

Some people believed that God’s will was to be found in fidelity to the markings of the text, the actual letters of the Law. They went so far as to insist that even a mistake made when copying a text was a violation. Jesus uses this very point of view to argue that he is not abolishing anything — he respects even the smallest part of the smallest letter, and he teaches others to do the same.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus charges his disciples to carefully preserve the law and warns them against failing to do so. Even breaking the least of the commandments would result in dire consequences.

The Mosaic Law spanned precepts that were moral, legal, and liturgical. Its moral precepts still hold in the New Testament because they are for the most part specific, divine-positive promulgations of the natural law. Here we see Christ giving them greater weight and meaning.

While the moral precepts of the Mosaic Law are eternal, its legal and liturgical precepts were laid down by God for a specific stage in salvation history, that is, up to the coming of Christ. Christians are not obligated to observe them (see Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, 1-2, 108, 3 ad 3).

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