As we listen to the reading from the prophet today, we are reminded that the covenant that God made with the children of Israel was a conditional covenant. “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.” (Exodus 19:5-6a) This statement is repeated in the Hebrew Scriptures in one form or another at least twenty-eight times.
Conditional statements or contracts are a part of our lives from our childhood. “If you are a good boy/girl, Santa will bring you what you want for Christmas.” Good behavior often was the condition for many things that we were promised in childhood. Such conditional statements form our lives as students. “If you study. . .” “If you apply yourself. . .” As adults in the work place, they are again present. “If you put in the time. . .” “If you complete this task. . .” Conditions are placed on almost all parts of our lives. “If you eat right, then. . .” Our health, our economic well-being, our careers, our studies, even our relationships depend upon whether we live up to the conditions that someone else sets for us.
At first reading and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we see this formula working. The people obey, and God blesses them. The people disobey, and God punishes them. Conditions seem to be God’s way of relating to us just like the rest of the world.
However, if we dig a little deeper into the mystery of God’s relationship with us, we begin to discover that the condition is very rarely observed. In fact, by the time we get to the prophet Ezekiel in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that the infamous “If. . . then” is missing. “Thus they will be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:20b) Actually this should come as no surprise. Although God framed the covenant in conditional terms in the Book of Exodus, if we read through the Hebrew Scriptures, we will find that no matter how many times the people turned away from God, God always took them back. No matter how many times they turned to other gods, God always responded with mercy and compassion.
God’s love for us is NOT conditional. We do not earn God’s love by being obedient. If it were conditional, our relationship with God would have evaporated long ago. No matter what our response to God’s love, that love is never withdrawn from us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.