Day 22: The Foundations of Salvation
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
The formation of children is then the prerogative of parents. Therefore honor your father, that he may bless you. Let the godly man honor his father out of gratitude and the ingrate do so on account of fear. Even if the father is poor and does not have plenty of resources to leave to his sons, still he has the heritage of his final blessing with which he may bestow the wealth of sanctification on his descendants. And it is a far greater thing to be blessed than it is to be rich.[i]
Ambrose (d. 397), Bishop of Milan
Almighty God and most merciful Father, whose word is a lantern to our feet and a light unto our steps, we humbly ask you to illuminate our minds so that we may comprehend the mysteries contained in your holy Law and, by the same, that we might realize that we can be virtuously transformed. We pray that we would in no way offend your divine majesty, through our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
The command to honor one’s father and mother was foundational to the second tablet of the Ten Commandments. The commandment also envisioned what it was to be in a covenant relationship with God. The people’s terrified reaction is not only a response to God’s awesome display of power and might, but also to the commandments themselves. They haven’t kept them. How could they remain in the presence of God? Thus this passage presents a powerful picture of what it looks like when we come to grips with the depths of our sin. We begin to realize the extent to which sin has separated us from God and, like the people, we want to be as far away from God as possible. This is why greater purity is an important ingredient for experiencing God.
12Honor your father and your mother in order that your days may be prolonged on the land that the LORD your God is giving to you. 13You shall not commit murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not answer your neighbor as a lying witness. 17You shall not desire your neighbor’s house; you shall not desire your neighbor’s wife, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
18Then all the people were afraid of the thunder and lightning and the sound of the horn and witnessed the mountain smoking. The people were afraid; so they quivered and stood afar off. 19Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us and we’ll listen. Don’t have God speak with us otherwise we’ll die.” 20So Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid since God has just come for you to experience His presence[iii] and to have the awe of Him before you so that you might not sin.” 21So the people stood afar off and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
22Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Thus you will say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven. 23You must not make gods of silver or gold to stand alongside me. You must not make them at all. 24You will construct for me an altar from the ground that you may sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings and your sheep and your cattle. Now every place my name is proclaimed, I will come to you and bless you.’”
New Testament Lesson
This text is often misread. The problem is not tradition itself. Everything in the Christian faith has been handed down through the generations, which is what tradition entails. The problem is the content of the tradition.[iv] Jesus is being critical of traditions that were violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the Law. Thus the religious leaders were misunderstanding what purity was all about. Something’s not right if more focus is placed on keeping ritual purity (i.e. handwashing) than on maintaining purity of the heart. It appears that ritual washing before meals was not widely required in the first century, but was simply a pet peeve of the most pietistic of the Pharisees.[v] What really gets the religious leaders in trouble however, is their interpretation of the Law that allows them to get around supporting their parents. This shows that their hearts (and by extension their teaching) are far from God.
1Then the Pharisees and the Scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, and said, 2“Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of our forefathers? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread. 3So Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Why do you transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4After all, God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘He who insults his father and mother, let him be put to death.’ 5But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, ‘whatever you would have gained from me is a gift to God,’ doesn’t have to honor his father.’ You’ve voided the word of God because of your traditions. 7You hypocrites! It’s just like Elijah prophesied concerning you: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me; 9They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commandments.’ 10Calling the crowd to Him, He said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11It’s not what enters into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out from the mouth, this defiles a person.’”
12Then His disciples came and said to Him, “You do know that the Pharisees who heard your message were offended.” 13So Jesus answered and said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not sow will be uprooted. Let them be. They are blind guides of the blind. But if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit.”
15Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16And Jesus said, “Even now are you still without understanding? 17Do you not understand that everything entering into the mouth makes its way to the stomach and is expelled in the latrine? 18But that which goes out from the mouth comes from the heart — that defiles a man. 19For from the heart come, disputes, wickedness, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lying and abusive speech. 20These things are what defile a person, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
Questions for Reflection
- How do you relate to the command to love God and neighbor? Is it possible really to love God without loving those around us in some tangible way? How do we explain the American antipathy for outsiders?
- Are you like the Israelites, standing far off from God? Why? What would it take for you to become more intentional about trying to draw near? What stops you?
- Jesus singles out religious people (particularly their leaders) for his most virulent criticism. Why is this? What is it about being a religious person that creates such risk of rigidity? How do you guard against it?
- How can you really tell if your leaders are “blind guides leading the blind”? How can we judge this from God’s perspective and not the shifting perspective of the culture?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
The common factor in our texts today is the command to “honor your father and mother.” As noted above, this is a foundational commandment. All the other commandments on the second tablet of the Decalogue flow from it. Further, the entire OT Law can be seen as a kind of elucidation or commentary on the Ten Commandments. Moses is trying to help the people understand that they cannot be in an intimate relationship with God without at least respecting their earthly parents.
Yet this is a difficult teaching for many because relationships with earthly parents can be so fraught with difficulty, abuse, mistreatment and misunderstandings. Why does Jesus place such a premium on our attitudes toward our earthly parents?
Jesus places the premium here because he comes to show us what genuine love is. He expects us to live this out by loving God and by loving our neighbor as ourselves. The two are connected.
We cannot claim that we love God and ignore the needs of our neighbors. We especially cannot claim the love of God if we are indifferent to the needs of our earthly parents. There is something just not right with one who is callous or otherwise indifferent to the condition of one’s parents.
But that’s the whole problem. Something’s not right. What’s not right, of course, is the presence of sin. Sometimes, for our own well-being or even safety, we cannot be in a functional relationship with our parents because they’ve hurt us so much. This is a simple reality for some. For everyone, we need a healthy detachment from our parents to avoid the psychological malady of co-dependency whereby we lose our own identities in serving them. All this says is that the presence of sin often complicates how we are to carry out what should be a straight-forward (and foundational) commandment.
Notice what the religious leaders do in response to this dilemma. They immediately reinterpret the Law to make it palatable. They say, “You see, I would take care of my parents if I didn’t have to give so much money to God. God comes first. So, sorry, but I can’t take care of my parents.” Nice argument, but it fails miserably because it is not grounded in love.
It’s critical to realize that the Pharisees are not some long-forgotten group of religious legalists. We can see them all around us today, especially in the Church, which, for all its claim to the contrary, still loves legalism. I suspect that if Jesus showed up in the center of our city under a different name, perhaps coming from somewhere in the Global South and preaching a message of peace, reconciliation and repentance that he would be similarly rejected, ignored and marginalized.
I say this because we reject Jesus’ teachings just about every day. We often reject them for good reason – they’re really hard to live out. But reject them we do when we are indifferent to the plight of those who need our help. It should be a scandal to us that life is so difficult in our country for the poor. It should scandalize us that the Church regularly condemns others for the few sins that don’t affect us personally. We need to repent and turn back to God.
In Lent, we take on some pious practices for a time, taking away food, living more simply, thinking more about our spiritual lives. But these practices are not what make us pure or whole. The only thing that can purify our souls is the presence of the Spirit within us. Our spiritual practices simply help us identify where we’ve gotten off track, where we’ve substituted the things of the culture for the things of God.
As Jesus puts it, purity comes from a pure heart, a heart aflame with love. With the coming of the Spirit and the grace that the Sacraments impart, we really can live this Christian life in an authentic way. The question for all of us is whether we have the courage to do so.
Spend some time meditating on the holiness of God. Perhaps take Isaiah 6 as your text when Isaiah comes into the presence of God and is overwhelmed by his holiness. Is this how you conceive of God? What would it be like to be in his presence?
Wednesdays and Fridays are traditionally days on which Christians fast from meat and from rich foods. Consider following this practice.
Spend some time thinking about a commandment in the Scriptures that you really can’t stand. Have you re-interpreted Jesus’ teachings to make them more palatable? Most of us have because Jesus’ teaching is so radical. Pray through how you have done this. How is it affecting your spiritual life?
[i] Saint Ambrose, “The Patriarchs,” in Seven Exegetical Works (Washington DC: CUA Press, 2002), 1.1, P. 243.
[ii] Adapted from Henry Bull, Christian Prayers and Meditations (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1842), xv–xvi.
[iii] I am following Moshe Greenberg’s view that this is a factitive statement and that God is trying to get the people used to his being in their presence. The literal translation of this is “test” but experience seems to fit the context better. Cf. Moshe Greenberg, “נסה in Exodus 20:20 and the Purpose of the Sinaitic Theophany,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79, no. 3 (1960): 273–76.
[iv] Luz, Matthew 8-20, 329.
[v] Roger P. Booth, Jesus and the Laws of Purity: Tradition History and Legal History in Mark 7 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1986), 202.