We live in a society in North America that puts a high value on affirmation – some would say excessively high. Either way, this statement of Jesus strikes us as harsh. That’s probably good. If the Gospel readings don’t evoke some kind of a reaction such as this, they have little power to change us.
There are two levels at which this little story is applicable. The first, and the one Jesus most probably intended, is directed at religious authorities, certainly in Jesus’ time, but in today’s Church as well. Jesus says, very bluntly: simply doing your job (even though it relates to religion), gives you no claim on God’s generosity. Doing your job, and doing it competently, are certainly important. But they’re only a start.
Second, for the vast majority of the faithful, what this story is saying is that simply following the rules is not enough. Obeying the commandments of God and Church are important, but just as for religious authorities, they’re a start, not the finish. This is bound to have troubled Jesus’ hearers. The Israelites put great stock in the law, and for good reason. The peoples that lived around them in the ancient Near East had multiple gods, but you could never be sure what they wanted, and they often seemed capricious. The Hebrews rejoiced that their God was different (e.g., Psalm 119), that He had told them exactly what they needed to do. That was a source of great security for them. They weren’t always very good at keeping those laws, just as we aren’t, today. But still, they knew what it was they should be doing. Law is concrete, and easy for us to grasp. The problem, as Jesus’ telling of the story made clear, is that, unfortunately, they stopped there. Following the rules often keeps the focus squarely on me; it’s all about my virtue, my piety. Remember the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14), and how the Pharisee told God about all his rule-keeping. Jesus didn’t condemn rule-keeping, but He certainly made it plain that such behavior gave the Pharisee no claim on God. Though very different in story details, this parable makes much the same point as today’s Gospel.
God wants something more than religious observance. God had told the Israelites that He desired compassion not sacrifices. Jesus says so explicitly (Matt 9:12), quoting from the prophet Hosea (Hos. 6:6). What that means is revealed in Jesus Himself, God’s ultimate gift to us. As Jesus was like God, He revealed to the Jews what it meant to be like God. Jesus does so for us as well. That is, we are to be self-giving, utterly, totally, self-giving. Even that wouldn’t give us a claim on God’s generosity. Nothing can. But that’s not why we do it. We are self-giving because God is self-giving. Our fulfillment as human beings lies precisely in this, and it is through sharing in Jesus’ life that we are enabled to be self-giving – to become, in other words, fully human, fulfilling the Genesis statement that we humans are made in God’s image.
There are no laws governing self-giving, only the law of love.
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