Deuteronomy, along with Leviticus and Numbers, are not texts frequented by Christians in search of consolation or challenge. As we close this first full week of Lent, however, this short passage from Deuteronomy 26 captures well the spirit of our Easter preparations. Lent is indeed a time of observance and self-discipline. Some of these disciplines are self-imposed. You may have given up sweets, or if you are more ascetical, coffee (never). But other disciplines come from the heart of the Christian tradition itself. Traditionally Lent is a time of fasting and my tradition enjoins certain practices that are designed to help us become more reflective about our sinfulness and our need for God. Such reflection can help us to realize that there is a deep connection between what we do and the kind of person we are. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is an adage precisely because it is true. There is no way that we can say we are living the Christian life if we do not seriously try “to walk in God’s ways observe his statutes, commandments and decrees, and to hearken to his voice.” The reward of righteousness, the scriptures remind us, is the blessing of God.
The language of both Deuteronomy and the Psalm seems to suggest a direct correlation between our behavior and God’s blessing. This is where I am thankful for contexts, both in the Bible as a whole and in the lectionary. The inclusion of the Gospel passage from Matthew reminds the would be self-righteous reader that Christian perfection does not come only from the quality of our observance of the commands and decrees, but from the quality of our loving. God also has a nasty habit of loving sinners just as much as he loves those who love him.
This does not mean that we should stop striving to do what God asks us to do, but it does mean that we must do it in a spirit of love and in a spirit that does not judge the other. At an earlier “less mature” stage of my life I was quite prone to self-righteous legalism. As an example, I used to get really irritated at Mass when “people” would mess up the proper times for sitting and standing, or worse, when they would sit when they were supposed to kneel. One time I was glaring at a woman sitting during the Eucharistic prayer; when communion time came she got up, grabbed some unseen crutches and hobbled down to receive. I think I stared down a different path that day.
Now my temptations are more subtle. A recent liturgical change requires that we stand a few seconds earlier than we used to. Even though I think I understand the reasons for the change, I still haven’t quite internalized it. As a result I am usually caught sitting when one or two people shock me into alertness by leaping to their feet seconds before the rest us begin to stagger upward. “What are they trying to prove,” I wonder, remembering a younger me. Jesus would not be happy. The truth is, I have no idea what is going on in those leapers, and I would be better off paying more attention to my own failings.
Not judging those who sit when they “should” kneel or who leap when a subtle move might be better may seem to be an odd lesson to get out of a Gospel passage that recommends loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors. Yet, I wonder, how can we live up to such a noble calling unless we first deal with our routine pettiness?
Blessed are they who follow the way of the Lord!
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