Today's first reading from the book of Deuteronomy (11:18, 26-28) sets the stage for our Scripture texts today, and offers us a wide-angle view of the biblical journey of the past weeks and a lens into Matthew's Gospel. They are very fitting readings as we interrupt ordinary time and prepare to enter into the season of Lent on Wednesday, March 9.
Today we hear Moses addressing the people:
I set before you here, this day, a blessing and a curse: a blessing for obeying the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin on you today; a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, but turn aside from the way I ordain for you today, to follow other gods, whom you have not known.
God uses his word and his commandments to transmit his very life to us and to lead us into the truth. We often use the very words of the Lord and his commandments to transmit death and hide the truth!
Moses and Jesus
Over the past weeks, we have seen that the Sermon on the Mount is clearly Matthew's greatest composition. More than any other teacher of morality, the Jesus of Matthew's Gospel instructs with divine power and authority, and makes possible a completely new existence. Matthew offers us many parallels between Moses and Jesus. Moses, the architect of ancient Israel, encountered God on Mount Sinai; the New Testament revealer speaks to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 5:3-12). For Christians, next to the Ten Commandments, the Eight Beatitudes (5:3-1) are held up as the Magna Carta of Christian living, expressing clearly the core of our life.
We have learned that in the beatitudes proclaimed and lived in Matthew's community, there are some people who are not suffering from poverty and hunger. Matthew assures us that Jesus is also concerned about their lot, as long as their attitudes are attuned to the kingdom. We have also observed that the Matthean Jesus does not abolish the Law, but rather asks for a deeper observance that gets to the reason why its demands were formulated: "to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (5:48). The righteousness of Jesus and his disciples must go beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus speaks with such confidence and credibility and implies that he is more authoritative than Moses and seems to legislate with all the assurance of the God of Mount Sinai.
Whereas Mark emphasizes the necessity of accepting Jesus as the crucified Christ and following him on the stark path of self-denial, Matthew emphasizes manifesting one's single-hearted devotion to the Lord by obeying his ethical instructions. The righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees (5:20) consists not in possessing the teachings of Jesus, but rather in acting upon them.
House built on rock
In today's Gospel we hear (7:21-27):
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.
At the time of Jesus, it would make no sense to build one's house on sand, or in a low place, instead of building it on a higher place, firmly constructed on the rock. After each heavy rain, a torrent would come and wash away anything in its path. That Jesus spoke these words was probably due to the fact that he himself saw structures carried away by heavy rains and storms in Palestine.
Jesus offers us two perspectives on houses and construction. To build one's house on the sand means to place our hope and our certainty on things that are unstable and fleeting, things that do not resist the tests of time and the hazards of chance.
What are such things? Money, success, fame, and even health and prosperity. To build one's house on rock means to base one's life and hope on things that are solid, enduring, things that will not be carried away with the winds of the times. Jesus reminds us that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will not pass away (Matthew 24:35).
To build one's house on rock simply means to build one's life on God. God is the rock of our salvation. Rock is one of the preferred biblical symbols to speak of God. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD is the Rock eternal (Isaiah 26:4). "He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is" (Deuteronomy 32:4). To build one's house on the rock means to live in the Church and not to remain on the periphery, at a distance, using the excuse that the Church is filled with corruption, dishonesty and sin.
Today's Gospel also appears to have a very harsh message. For the first time the evangelist speaks about people who refer to Jesus as their Lord. What good does it serve to cry out, "Lord, Lord" when the works one accomplishes are not done for the Lord but for one's own glory. When we cry out "Lord," it really means that we belong to him at all times, and not just as temporary acquaintances. When the Lord responds that he doesn't know those who call out his name, and dismisses them from his presence, Jesus is really expressing a heartfelt desire that he does not want people to be distant from the Father. Those who simply do things in his name to be seen and honored, yet refuse to be in communion with him are fraudulent. Those who are deaf to the Word of God, who do not act upon it, and whose lives are not built upon God will fade away.
Justification by faith
The Catholic Church proclaims that, just as the Bible indicates, justification and redemption come through the grace given by God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Human beings cannot earn redemption or salvation. Neither is it won through good works. Good works are done though God's grace in response to God's redemptive work in Christ. Accordingly, Christ is the unique mediator between God and human beings.
Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Romans (3:21-25, 28) provides a clear statement of Paul's "gospel," i.e., the principle of justification by faith in Christ. God has found a means of rescuing humanity from its desperate plight: Paul's general term for this divine initiative is the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21).
Divine mercy declares the guilty innocent and makes them so. God does this not as a result of the law but apart from it, and not because of any merit in human beings but through forgiveness of their sins (3:24), in virtue of the redemption wrought in Christ Jesus for all who believe (3:22, 24-25). God has manifested his righteousness in the coming of Jesus Christ, whose saving activity inaugurates a new era in human history.
Reception of the word
In light of today's readings, let us continue our reflections on "Verbum Domini," Benedict XVI's postsynodal exhortation on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church," and consider how the Church receives the Word.
The Lord speaks his word so that it may be received by those who were created 'through' that same word. 'He came among his own' (John 1:11): his word is not something fundamentally alien to us, and creation was willed in a relationship of familiarity with God's own life. Yet the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel also places us before the rejection of God's word by 'his own,' who 'received him not' (John 1:11). Not to receive him means not to listen to his voice, not to be conformed to the Logos.
On the other hand, whenever men and women, albeit frail and sinful, are sincerely open to an encounter with Christ, a radical transformation begins to take place: 'but to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God' (John 1:12). To receive the Word means to let oneself be shaped by him, and thus to be conformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to Christ, the 'only Son from the Father' (John 1:14). It is the beginning of a new creation; a new creature is born, a new people comes to birth. Those who believe, that is to say, those who live the obedience of faith, are 'born of God' (John 1:13) and made sharers in the divine life: sons in the Son (cf. Galatians 4:5-6; Romans 8:14-17).
As St. Augustine puts it nicely in commenting on this passage from John's Gospel: 'you were created through the word, but now through the word you must be recreated.' Here we can glimpse the face of the Church as a reality defined by acceptance of the Word of God who, by taking flesh, came to pitch his tent among us (cf. John 1:14). This dwelling-place of God among men, this shekinah (cf. Exodus 26:1), prefigured in the Old Testament, is now fulfilled in God's definitive presence among us in Christ" (No. 50).
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
The readings for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; 1 Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27.
Image: Rembrandt, Jesus Preaching (La Petite Tombe) 1652