Living in the Presence of the Lord
I grew up in a Scouting family, with four younger brothers. Each month a new copy of Boys Life magazine arrived and we eagerly opened it to a page called “Think and Grin.” This was a collection of jokes and cartoons. Some were very obvious in meaning, others required a bit of thinking to understand the joke. But we all read them and usually then read them to our mother. She enjoyed them too, and especially she enjoyed the fact that we all, individually, read the very same jokes to her!
As I consider the readings for this Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, I am struck by the double meaning of a word. The first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, begins, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe…” (Dt 4:1-2,6-8) The word in question is “hear.” For us, hearing refers to the physical act of perceiving the sound and understanding the meaning of the word. But for the people of Israel, it carried an additional meaning. That meaning was to “obey,” as in “take it to heart and live according to what is being said.” In essence, this set of instructions should be called “Hear and Do.”
The context for this reading is that the Law is being presented to the people. It is a codification of how people are to interact with their God and with each other. The rules and codes grew out of a particular cultural context – that of a Middle-Eastern pastoral people. It codified a more merciful response to misfortune or injury at the hand of others. Today we look at it and see it as rather brutal, but the notion of balancing the taking of an eye with the penalty of losing an eye was actually a great improvement over the prior way of killing an entire family or village if one individual maimed, insulted, or injured a member of another stronger group. Jewish law was heavily influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, a legal text from Babylonia written down around 1755-1758 B.C. which pioneered this more humane legal code.
The instructions from Deuteronomy include another important point. Nothing is to be added or taken away from the Law as it is being presented to the people. Following this Law will show the wisdom and intelligence of the Israelites, a people who are close to their God who, in turn, chooses to remain close to them.
As the years and centuries passed, many new situations arose and solutions were found that came to be treated as essential parts of the Law. The Law as it was known by the time of Jesus was far more complicated than it had been when first handed down in the Sinai desert, particularly in terms of purity regulations. What made a person “unclean” and therefore ritually impure and prohibited from participating in religious rituals? A large number of guidelines had been developed, including specific ways and times for washing hands, kettles, jugs, and beds that explained what was impure and what was necessary to restore purity.
When Jesus’ disciples were seen eating after visiting the marketplace without first washing their hands in the ritually required manner before eating, the Scribes and Pharisees objected. Scribes were those who studied the scriptures. Pharisees were another group that focused closely on observing all of the specific requirements of the Law. Jesus responded with some aggravation. (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) He quoted Isaiah the prophet who had noted that human requirements had been added to the commandments of God and God’s commandments were not being observed. “Their hearts are far from me…” Jesus declared, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person.” It is only what comes from the heart, the depths of the human being, that can defile a person.
St. James echoes Jesus’ point in his letter to Jewish Christians. All good things come from God and are pure gift. There is never any change in God’s relationship with humans from God’s side of the deal. We have been willed into being and are to be a sort of first fruits of creation. From the human side, the critical thing is to be doers, not just hearers of the word of God. “Hear and Do” again!
What are we to do? Care for orphans and widows. Just for them? Why these two groups? When these words were first written, it was because without a man’s protection, anyone could and did do whatever they wanted to do to women and children. They had no social status and were the most vulnerable members of any community.
Today we have social and legal protections for women and children. Orphans and widows are not necessarily the most vulnerable people today, though we certainly have a responsibility as a community to provide loving support for them. But who else needs our care now? Refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, addicts, the unhoused, those with special needs. Many people still need a hand and a smile of welcome. How will we respond to them? How do I respond?
“Those who do justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” (Ps 15) It was so three thousand years ago and it is so today. It’s all about our relationship with the Lord and each other. Hear and Do!