Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 6 March 2011
Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; Psalm 31:2-4, 17, 25; Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27
Between natural disasters, economic meltdown and civil unrest, the world is a very uncertain place to live in lately. Actually, it always is, but sometimes we are reminded of that in ways we cannot ignore. Amidst all this instability, where can we find firm ground for our feet?
The psalmist looks to God as a rock of safety. If we look at the ‘negative space’ in the psalm, we see a picture of the psalmist as vulnerable, feeling trapped, the victim of injustice, afraid of being shamed, not sure where to go next, with a nagging fear that God neither sees nor hears what is going on. And yet the mood of the psalm is ultimately hopeful, because the psalmist’s life is built upon God. In the midst of everything, he or she trusts God to be the stable centre, a rock of refuge.
Jesus gives us the memorable image of two people building houses – one doing the hard work of hewing foundations out of rock, the other taking the easier option of building on sand. Anyone who knows anything about building can tell person number two that they are crazy, and sure enough, when the rain, floods and howling winds hit, the second house collapses. The house built on the rock has the same dreadful weather thrown at it, but it stands firm. Probably the only difference between the houses is where their foundations have been laid, but what a fundamental difference that proves to be. Jesus offers his teaching, set out in the Sermon on the Mount, as the foundation upon which to build. We need to both hear and put them into practice. I wonder how often in history that has honestly and truly been done. Jesus had very little time for those who would choose to use his name, get themselves a following by doing attention-grabbing things, and yet ignore the heart of his mission and message by failing to do the will of God his Father. We aren’t building on rock when we call ourselves Christian, but only when we are truly following Jesus.
What does it mean to do follow Jesus by doing God’s will? The Old Testament reading uses Law-keeping terminology. The Mosaic covenant set out in detail what loving God and loving neighbour was to look like in a specific culture in the ancient world. The people of God weren’t simply called to external compliance. The law of love was to be ingested into their heart and soul so that it became the centre from which they acted. To choose to live according to the commandments was to choose life and blessing; to disobey was to invite disaster. We mustn’t interpret this too simplistically as a guarantee that everything will go right for those who serve God wholeheartedly. Life just isn’t that fair. But it does remind us that the way of radical love and faithfulness is the way to life, and that our choices and our actions do have consequences. To turn our backs on justice and to give our allegiance to lesser gods such as materialism is to build our lives on sand, as individuals and as communities. It is to invite disaster in the long run.
The Old Testament Law is all too often dismissed as legalism which Christianity replaces with faith and grace. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stressed that he did not come to do away with the Law, but to fulfill it. St Paul, the apostle of grace, points out that it is the righteousness of God to which the Law and Prophets testify which is manifested in Jesus Christ. We don’t have to earn God’s favour but, having freely received it, we are empowered to live the fully human lives towards which the commandments directed us and which Jesus embodied in his own life and ministry. Faith and grace do not replace the requirements of love and justice – they enable us to fulfill them. To follow Jesus and put his teachings into practice is to keep the spirit of the law. This lifestyle won’t prevent the storms in our lives, but it will prevent us from collapsing under their assault.