MARCH 13, 2012 –TUESDAY, 3RD WEEK OF LENT: Daniel 3:34-43 ; Matthe18: 21-35

The more we reflect on the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures the greater our surprise at various features of that revelation contained in it pages. When the apostles, and especially Saint Paul, preached the Gospel of the Lord Jesus they insisted on the fresh and fuller revelation he gave to the teachings of the Hebrew writings of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Wisdom books. They insisted on the newness of the revelation embodied in the risen Christ. Yet they continued to consider themselves to be faithful Jews and participated in the worship of the Temple. The Acts of the Apostles describe Peter and John, for instance, as going up to the temple to pray at the ninth hour, which was the time of the evening sacrifice. The impression this text conveys is that such prayerful worship was their customary practice during the early period following the resurrection. This sharing in the temple worship continued even after the descent of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, a strikingly vivid heavenly intervention was needed to convince Peter that he and all those who accepted Christ in faith, were not bound by the Torah in regard to the food laws so prominently set forth in the book of Leviticus. These prescriptions were held in high honor by observant Jews of his day. Peter makes it clear that he was most observant of the restrictions such legislation gave strong expression to.  Only upon direct instruction from an angel did it become evident to Peter that these dietary prescriptions are no longer binding for any who join the Church of Christ, whether Jew or pagan.

Since these, and other practices prescribed by the Law of Moses, such as circumcision, were not accepted by Christians, Paul and the other early preachers of the Gospel met with the resistance of those Jewish leaders who had come to understand and teach the tradition chiefly as imposing a way of acting in keeping with the prescriptions of the Torah. These prescriptions were reckoned by the Jewish teachers to amount to 613, no small burden to carry. The first Council of Jerusalem reduced the requirements to four for those Jews who converted to the “Church”.

From the time Peter was convinced by his vision and the angel’s explicit assurance the other, more interior elements of the revelation revealed or implicitly suggested in the holy writings and stressed by Jesus in his teaching, were to characterize the Christian way of life more fully understood and lived.  Since the Pharisees gave such prominence to the literal observances of the Law, this Christian insistence on purity of heart and intention rather than rigorous adherence to the prescriptions of the Law soon created still further tension between the Church and the Synagogue. One of the results of this difference in understanding of the Mosaic revelation, as presented in parts of Saint Paul’s letters, was to give rise to the view that the Hebrew faith was prominently legalistic in tone. This view became a settled conviction and came to be considered a defining feature of the Jewish faith in later ages.

This criticism of the Judaism of the opponents of Jesus by Paul and others in the apostolic age tended to leave in the faint background another tradition that is surprisingly prominent in all three areas of the Hebrew Bible. The importance of the heart and interior dispositions of the spirit in the life of the recipients of God’s word is attested in the Torah, especially in Deuteronomy, in Wisdom books, and with greater emphasis the dispositions of the heart were the focus of the preaching of the prophets. Nowhere is this interior focus more prominent that in the writing of Isaiah. The prophet, early on in the life of the chosen people, had criticized their spiritual dullness and stated the reason for it. His criticism was blunt and detailed. So decided a witness was he to the need for cultivating the proper attitudes of the heart and spiritual senses that our Lord, many centuries later, cites him as a witness to the true intent of the Jewish Torah: “Listen as best you can, but understand nothing, Look as sharply as you are able, but you see nothing, for the heart of this people is gross, its ears are hard of hearing, and its eyes are closed lest they  should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hear and be converted.”   (Matthew 13:14, 15; Isaiah 6:9 ff)

In numerous passages and in various contexts God is spoken of as merciful, kind, forgiving,  easy to forgive, mighty to forgive, clement, long suffering and loving. One instance among hundred others we just heard in today’s first reading from Daniel the prophet who prays to God: “Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.” Jesus in his preaching made this current of the Hebrew revelation more prominent and brought it to its perfection both by his example and his word. Here at the altar as we offer the Eucharist we are privileged to experience something of this great mercy, as he, the beloved son of the eternal Father, offers himself for our salvation and shares in some measure his very person with us. In the sacrament we are brought into union with God himself by living faith for his love endures forever.  W 

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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