Words of Eternal Life

On the first Sunday of Lent we reflected on the covenant that God made with the entire created world. Last week we pondered the covenant promises God made to Abraham and his descendants. Today we consider one aspect of yet a third covenantthe law associated with the covenant God made through Moses.

The prominence of Law and Order programs and others featuring a courtroom as the stage upon which the drama unfolds suggests that we are grounded in principles of law. But are we? We still often applaud those who know how to get around the law. We don’t seem as committed to law as a first impression might suggest.


The Hebrew word torah is usually translated Law, but it might be better understood as directive or instruction. The Law stated in today’s first reading and praised in the psalm response is not a burdensome yoke that weighs us down. Rather, it is a list of directives or instructions for living out our covenant relationship. In this sense the laws are truly words of eternal life.

The Law is not a set of rigid precepts. Again and again the responsorial psalm depicts the Law’s life-enhancing attributes. It refreshes the soul and rejoices the heart; it is pure and true, more precious than gold. Ancient Israel considered the Law a form of wisdom gained from reflection on life. This wisdom developed out of insights that demonstrated what will lead to happiness and what will not. The Israelites cherished the Law much as the Greeks revered their philosophy. In today’s reading Paul uses these characterizations to make his point about the excellence of Christ.

It may be relatively easy to perceive the power of God in the miracles that Jesus performed, and we are not unlike those of whom Paul speaks, those who look for such signs. However, it takes faith to recognize the wisdom of God in Christ crucified. Yet this is precisely what Paul proclaims. From a human point of view, the image of Christ crucified may seem foolish, but it is far wiser than any human wisdom. But what does this mean? As the wisdom of God, Christ fulfills the expectations of any and all codes of law. Therefore, in following him, we fulfill the requirements of the Law; in following him, we live out our covenant relationship.

Jesus did not renounce the Law; rather, he brought it to fulfillment. He showed us that external observance is not enough. He called for a commitment that is much deeper, a commitment that goes to the very heart of our covenant relationship with God. In the Gospel reading we see that he cleansed the temple; he did not violate it. And many people grasped the meaning of his actions. They saw the signs he was doing.

Jesus’ actions were acted-out prophecy, and his words were prophetic forthtelling. By driving the merchants out of the temple precincts, he symbolically cleansed it of superficial, external practice. Identifying God as his Father, he affirmed his right to act in this way. The future events of his death and resurrection would be the ultimate signs of his authority, but it would take faithboth then and nowto recognize this.

How does this touch us today? Lent is a time of personal scrutiny, a time to look deeply at our covenant commitment as expressed through our attitude toward the Law. We, and the catechumens with us, learn the torah requirements as the basis of our covenant responsibilities. (Today is the first of three Sundays on which rituals for purification and enlightenment, called scrutinies, are celebrated on behalf of the catechumens who will be baptized during the coming Easter Vigil.) But there is more; we have the example of Jesus to demonstrate how these responsibilities might be actually lived out.

Filled with zeal for the house of God, that special place where humans and God meet, Jesus challenges religious practice that is simply external. It is important to note that the Greek word for house, oíkos, can also mean household. In fact, this latter is probably the meaning intended in the original biblical saying, Zeal for your house(hold) consumes me (Ps 69:10). This rendering of the word raises a serious challenge for us. How zealous are we for the household of God? How committed are we to the people who make up the churchnot merely those whom we find in the external building, but all those who are in any way the people of God?

There is a connection between this zeal and the directives we find in the covenant Law. While these precepts provide a sketch of our responsibilities toward God, there is also an obvious social dimension to most of them. They outline the way we are to live with and respect one another. Commitment to the deeper meaning of these laws is the way we are called to be faithful to our covenant with God.

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