ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

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Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Love in Action

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28
Romans 3:21-25, 28
Matthew 7:21-27

The law was supposed to free the believer for loving service (Deuteronomy) but instead it became a shackling limitation. Faith in Jesus Christ, the rock and foundation of salvation (Matthew), leads one to transcend the desire for self righteousness and self-justification (Romans).

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28.

While the origin of the book of Deuteronomy remains a subject of debate, there can be no doubt as to the work’s value and influence on subsequent Old Testament thought. Erroneously named due to a mistranslation of its 17:18, it is in fact not a second law (deuteronomos) but rather a copy of the law. Granted, the law at Moab (Deuteronomy) is not identical to that of Sinai (Exodus); it is an adaptation that nonetheless finds its roots in the principles of Mosaic law. Written as if it were Moses’ farewell address to his people before they entered Canaan from Moab, Deuteronomy pulls together all of Israel’s traditions with its own particular concerns.

Since the early 19th century, some scholars have thought that the “scroll of the law” found in the temple during the reign of Josiah (640-609) was probably Deuteronomy (2 Kings 23:8ff) or at least some part of the book (chapters 12-26?). These scholars based their supposition on the fact that the principles of Josiah’s reform greatly resembled the central concerns of Deuteronomy (viz., central sanctuary, avoidance of all foreign influences, emphasis on covenant life according to law, and so on). Some scholars regarded the “finding” of the book as a pious fraud, a ploy to lend authority and authenticity to Josiah’s reform, Therefore, a seventh century B.C.E. date was assigned to the book. Other scholars attest that Deuteronomy was rather a guidebook for an earlier reform and would date it as early as Hezekiah. Still others, attesting to the archaic character of some parts of the book, push the date back to the Shechem covenant (Joshua 24). The variety of dates and origins conjectured for the text points to the fact that Deuteronomy is not a homogeneous work. It is rather an assimilation of information and traditions dating from the thirteenth up to the seventh century at which time it received its final touches from a Judean editor.

The central focus of Deuteronomy is an understanding of law (i.e., the terms of the covenant) as the human response to God’s special election. From this pivotal point, the author explained the successes and failures of Israel’s checkered history in terms of fidelity to or disregard for the law. With this principle as a premise, Deuteronomy serves as an introduction to the historical books which follow it.

In the Shema (6:5ff), the importance of the law is stated in a beautifully worded challenge requiring the response of one’s whole being, interior motivation as well as external actualization. Verse 18 of today’s pericope is a repetition of part of the Shema (6:8, see also Exodus 13:9, 16). It is not certain as to when this exhortation was actually taken literally (some say after the exile) but these words gave birth to the use of phylacteries or prayer boxes. Some texts of the Torah (Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11; 13-21 are suggested) were inscribed on parchment and enclosed in small boxes worn on the arm (hand?) and the head by Jewish men at prayer. Whether or not these phylacteries were in use in the seventh century B.C.E., their existence underscores the danger against which the prophets warned continually, that of mere lip service or external behavior as a substitute for interior dedication. The outward observance of the law as signaled by the phylacteries was to be a true reflection of an interior attitude an motivation.

The blessings and curses described in vv. 26-28 were dependent upon Israel’s performance of her covenant responsibilities. Such sanctions (as in Hittite suzerainty treaties) were deemed necessary to assure fidelity to the terms set (in Israel’s case, the law). That the author(s) of Deuteronomy saw the hardships which befell the people as consonant with their behavior toward the law is evident throughout the book. Deuteronomy presents the correct attitude toward law as a love response, involving one’s whole being, relating one to God and to others.

Romans 3:21-25, 28.

Rome was to be for Paul a steppingstone to the rest of the then known world. Although the apostle did not continue on to Spain after Rome, he made his influence felt far beyond the borders of Rome, and far beyond the first century, in his treatise to this city. Writing

from Corinth around 57-58 (see Romans 15:25, Acts 20:3) in order to announce his coming visit, Paul’s words to the church of Rome reflect his missiology, namely, that God who revealed himself in human history has offered salvation to all the peoples of the earth in the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul saw himself as God’s messenger in making known that good news and hence offering salvation to all.

Paul’s experience among the gentiles in the East and his conflict with the Judaizers made him adamant in his preaching that human beings depend (for salvation) not on the “deeds of the law” but on faith in Jesus Christ. By that faith, the believer is enabled by God to appropriate the effects of the saving act (death-resurrection) of Christ. Using the Greek literary style of the Stoic diatribe, Paul juxtaposed his main ideas about faith and justification over and against the law and the righteousness it afforded.

In Romans 3:21-4:25, from which our pericope today is excerpted, Paul set out the means (faith) by which salvation is to be obtained. Citing Abraham (Romans 4) as the example par excellence of salvation by faith, Paul would have his readers understand faith as a total commitment in trust to God which expresses itself in obedience. The uprightness, Re that of Abraham, which the Jews thought they could achieve by observing the law, was to be achieved not by works according to any law (Torah, moral philosophy or conscience) but by faith. Moreover, that faith, like the salvation to which it led, was to be accepted as God’s gratuitous gift. A glance backward at the failures in Israel’s history should be proof enough, taught Paul, of the inadequacy of the law. By sin (see v. 23) one was deprived of God’s glory, but by faith in the redemptive value of Christ’s work, one could forever enjoy that glory.

Perhaps more than any other New Testament book, Romans has affected the development of later Christian theology. Echoes of these same ideas are seen in 1 Peter, Hebrews and James. Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin were obviously influenced by Romans. Controversy as to the correct interpretation of today’s text played a major part in heating up the Reformation debates. Luther’s addition of “alone” was probably an attempt at clarification, but it led others to the false conclusion that works (of the law, etc.) are of no account whatever. Origen foresaw this danger and warned against it. It should be noted that although Paul denied the power of works to merit salvation, he did not negate the value of works done after justification (being put right with God). Indeed, one’s faith would naturally overflow in deeds of goodness.

Matthew 7:21-27.

With the words of today’s text, the great sermon on the mount draws to an end in Matthew’s gospel. Over against Pharisaic Judaism with its over-emphasis on law, Matthew posits Jesus, a new lawgiver and bringer of a new kingdom. Besides the problem of Pharisaic rejection, Matthew’s church of the 80s was also afflicted by a plethora of charismatics whose sensational displays of prophecy and healing belied the simple truth of Jesus’ message. Paul encountered the same problem in Corinth, as is evident in his letters to that Greek community. Like Paul, Matthew regarded these gifts as suspect and valueless without the proper underpinnings. For Paul, the basis for authentic use of charismata was love (1 Corinthians 13:2) and reliance on the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Likewise, Matthew saw that the basis for all gifts was a firm foundation built on Jesus Christ.

In describing the true discipline, Matthew presented an understanding of Christianity as lived out in the works of love and mercy which Jesus expounded throughout the great sermon. In these works and in the attitudes expressed in the beatitudes, Jesus saw the accomplishment of the will of the Father.

To merely call out, “Lord, Lord,” seems to be a criticism of nominal Christians whose faith remains a matter of talk or thought alone. Perhaps, too, these words were leveled at the Pharisees who wore the letter of the law on their heads and arms (phylacteries) but did not let its spirit penetrate their hearts. That faith in Christ should move one to action is illustrated in the metaphor of the houses. Using the Palestinian environs of his community, Matthew envisages a house built on rock withstanding the early and the late rains which would wash away the sandy foundation. To be a hearer as well as a doer of the word is a favorite teaching of Jesus which is reminiscent of Deuteronomy as well as the prophets who constantly railed against mere lip service. Some see this gospel as radically opposed to the teaching of Romans. In truth, the contrast of the two texts underscores the tension between faith and works. But it is part of the task of Christian discipleship to survive that tension by finding the proper time and season for each manifestation of dedication to Christ.

1. The law as a guide and norm was not to be stagnant and external but an interior act of love, lived in community (Deuteronomy).

2. All of us are sinners, eligible for redemption because of God’s great love (Romans).

3. The faith we speak must also be the faith we live (Matthew).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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