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The Covenant Law of Sinai

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent (B Cycle)

The first reading of the Sundays of Lent in the B Cycle of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass focus their attention on the covenant relationship that exists between God and the created world. On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard of the covenant that God made with all of creation after the flood. Last Sunday we heard of the promises that God made with Abraham. This Sunday the first reading tells us of the Covenant that God and Israel entered into at Sinai. The fundamental commandments of that Covenant are written down in both the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy. It is probably safe to say that the ten commandments of the Sinai Covenant were among the first verses of the Scriptures that we were taught to memorize. The law of the Sinai Covenant is called “tora,” the name given to the five books of the law. It is in that name that we find the distinguishing characteristic of the law of Sinai, for while we think of law as a code of legal precepts or directives, the law of Sinai is considered teaching or instruction. It is, in fact, codified wisdom.

We pray the second part of Psalm 19 in response to the first reading. Six different synonyms are used by the psalmist to extol the glories of the law. The psalm describes the blessings that can accrue to those who accept the law. Rather than simply describing the law, the psalm seeks to persuade us to embrace it as the will of God and to live in accord with it. Each one of the statements in this psalm identifies the law as belonging to the Lord. The children of Israel consequently found their self-identification in the law. Because the law belonged to the Lord, all those who embraced the law also belonged to the Lord.

The effects of the law enumerated in the psalm are relational, enhancing human life itself. The psalmist maintains that the law imbues the soul with new vitality; it gives wisdom to those who would not ordinarily have it. It delights the heart; it enables the eyes to see dimensions of truth otherwise obscured. It establishes an enduring attitude of awe; it is a path to righteousness or right relationship with God and neighbor. So while some may think of law as restrictive or prohibitive, the psalmist finds it to be life giving and ennobling. Reverence for the law seems to promise the best that life has to offer.

Sadly, by the time that Jesus enters upon the scene in Israel, the law had become anything but life giving and ennobling. The law as interpreted by the Pharisees had sorted people out and divided society into “us” and “them.” The ten commandments of the Book of Exodus became the 613 commandments of the Talmud – 248 positive commandments (the “Do’s”) and 365 negative commandments (the “Don’t’s”). It was nigh unto impossible for anyone to live up to them all. The law became a heavy weight of guilt imposed upon the people rather than the life-giving will of God that it was originally fashioned to be.

Jesus taught the law and kept the law completely, but also stressed the importance of living the basic foundation of the law – the love of God and the love of neighbor. When he comes to the Temple at Passover, he cleanses it of the commerce that has replaced devotion. When asked by what authority he does this, he claims his relationship with the Father gives him all the authority he needs. The wisdom of the Scriptures, the power of God, the Temple itself are not greater than the Christ, the anointed one of God. It is the Christ, the Messiah, who replaces the restrictions and divisions of the law by calling all people “children of God,” and beloved of their Father in heaven.

These next three Sundays of Lent are traditionally set aside for the celebration of the scrutinies for those who are seeking baptism at the Easter vigil. The scrutinies are cleansing rituals which catechumens undergo as their immediate preparation for baptism. For those of us who are already baptized, these Sundays can be a time for us to prepare ourselves to renew our commitment to the covenant into which we were born through baptism. Lent affords us this time of recalling the life-giving relationship we have through Jesus.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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