The Mercy Pervading the Law, 15th Friday (I), July 21, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor
July 21, 2017
Ex 11:10-12:14, Ps 116, Mt 12:1-8


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:


The following points were attempted in this homily:

  • Today’s readings give us the opportunity to focus on two essential realities in the Christian faith. The first is about God’s pedagogy, the way he trains us in the faith, the way we’re called to grow. The second is how to live that reality with regard to the way we are to unite ourselves to Jesus’ worship to the Father.
  • Let’s talk first about God’s wise teaching and training us in the faith. There would seem to be at first a great contrast between what God was instructing the Israelites in the first reading and how Jesus opposed the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospel. In the first reading, God gave extraordinarily detailed instructions to the Israelites about how they were to prepare the Passover meal not just the first time but every year thereafter. He told them when they needed to prepare the lamb, how they needed to cook it, how they needed it eat it, what they were to do with its blood and so on. This was meant to help them to take little things seriously and to receive the type of discipline in little things that can help us in big things. With any discipline this is the way things work. When we first start speaking a foreign language, we have to learn how to “do” everything — conjugate, perhaps decline, use prepositions and possessives appropriately and so forth. If we don’t know how to do that, then it will be very difficult for us to use the language to write love poetry. The problem over the course of time is many Jews stayed at the level of that detail and rather than passing to its real transformative meaning began to become so obsessed about the details of the liturgical and moral law that they were suffocating their spiritual growth and that of others. Historically what occurred is that after the Babylonian Captivity the Jews realized — accurately — that the reason for their exile was because they had been unfaithful to God’s law, and in an excess of precaution began to become so obsessed about the little details of the law that they missed the forest for the trees, they missed the Legislator because of the legislation. The class of scribes, the scholars of the law, arose in order to study every word, and then, in order to prevent Jews from violating it, began, as many scholars like to analogize, draw fences around the law so that they wouldn’t possibly violate it. With regard to the Sabbath, if the point of the Sabbath was to keep it holy, to keep it as a day of freedom apart from enslaving work, then they would make all types of regulations so that they wouldn’t get anywhere close to violating it. So they determined in minutiae what would be the minimalist form of work and invented rules that many Jews began to take as seriously as the commandments. For example, they said that on the Sabbath you couldn’t lift anything that would weigh more than two dry figs, they described how far you could walk, they said that you couldn’t prepare food, and so on. They had missed the point totally. Rather than a gift of God giving us a chance to set the reset button in our relationship with him and others, rather than a day of love and freedom, it became a day of a more intense form of slavery.
  • That’s one of the most important things that Jesus came to fix. In today’s Gospel, we begin the Twelfth Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel which is all going to be about how Jesus’ bringing the Sabbath back to its original meaning would get people to begin plotting to kill him. His critics will go from observing and confronting him in today’s Gospel, to observing whether he’d heal — do an act of love — to outright plotting to kill him to persecution. Today Jesus is walking through the fields of grain with the disciples on the Sabbath. They were hungry because they really hadn’t eaten anything. So they plucked the heads of grain and began to eat what it. In doing so, it’s important to state, they weren’t stealing because Deuteronomy explicitly gave those who were traveling the right to do this. But in order to eat the grain, they needed to pluck it, winnow and thresh it in their hands, and then eat it, and it was this type of minimal work in order to eat that the Scribes and Pharisees said was contrary to God’s will. Jesus defended his disciples, and showed their erroneous interpretation, by two references to Sacred Scripture. The first was what David did with his troops as they were serving the Lord and had nothing to eat. They entered the temple area and ate the showbread — the bread that was symbolically placed in the Temple before the Lord for a week until it was replaced and the priests would eat it. Jesus was saying that there was a higher principle involved and that there was no sin in David because what was eaten was to strengthen them to do the Lord’s work. Likewise he pointed out to the work that the Temple priests do on the Sabbath, lighting candles, burning incense, dealing with sacrificed animals, and it’s clear that they were not violating the Sabbath by doing this work that was part of their praise and homage to God. Jesus was stressing that he and his disciples were glorifying God by doing what they were doing, not sinning against. Jesus had just finished calling those who were burdened to come to him to be refreshed and he was giving that refreshment, something that the Sabbath was intended to do, to remake us according to God’s image in love. Jesus stressed that the entirety of the law, that the practice of the faith, was meant to be transformative, to change us to become more and more like the Lord, to help us to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as God loves him and us. That’s the whole point of the Sabbath. That is the whole point of the law, as Jesus reiterates today with Hosea’s words: mercy. Mercy is so much more valuable than the sacrifice of animals, because God is merciful and wants us, in receiving his mercy, to share it. Jesus was stressing that his critics had no mercy whatsoever toward the “innocent men” who had become his followers.
  • This is an important principle for all of us. The initial training God gives us in faith is meant to become so much a part of us that we can pass with God to the essence of everything for which he gave us those foundations. Altar boys are trained in the minutiae of what they’re supposed to do not so that at the end they’re obsessing about cruets, or incense, or how they’re folding their hands, but so that they can pray what they’re doing and inspire others by their prayerful discipline. All of us are trained in what to do during Mass, from taking holy water and blessing us to genuflecting, blessing ourselves before the Gospel, kneeling, standing, processing, and so forth not so that we can stay at the level of those gestures, but really love God and others through them. There is an issue that many times we, like the ancient Scribes and Pharisees, can remain at the level of rubrics rather than pass from the sign to the signified. We can see someone fail to genuflect and wonder what’s wrong with the person rather than be glad the person has come into the presence of the Lord and might even not be a Catholic and doesn’t know what to do in Church… I remember once when I had started to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in New Bedford that I was visited by a woman after Mass so concerned that the “novus ordo” Catholics were standing at the beginning of the Alleluia rather than at the “Dominus vobiscum” after it. She was more concerned about that than the very meaning of the Gospel. For those of us in the priesthood or the religious life, we can sometimes become so narrowly focused on smaller aspects of the rule and customs, and upset at someone not taking care, for example of the way to fold napkins, then we can really identify lovingly with the person using the napkin. Postulancy and the novitiate are times in which we’re trained in lots of particular things but they’re meant to pass into a life in which, with good ingrained habits, we’re able to live fully according to the way the charism incarnates the greatest commandment and the one like it. The whole point of divine pedagogy is to help the disciple become like the Teacher, the slave like the Master, the son or daughter like the Father. The little things are important in terms of our training, but they are meant to be ingredients in a much bigger offering to the Lord, means rather than ends in themselves.
  • Today’s feast of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, the great Capuchin Doctor of the Church, is an opportunity for us to see how this is done, because he was one of the great figures in the counter-reformation to respond to Martin Luther’s and the Reformers’ criticism that the Church was all about “works” rather than faith. The reformers sought to cast aside works because of the abuse they found of Christians’ focusing excessively on them. The key was to have a proper relationship between the works and the purpose of the works so that they would in fact become works of mercy expressing and strengthening faith. St. Lawrence was gifted with extraordinary intelligence and an incredible memory such that he learned almost all of the modern European languages as well as the ancient ones used in the Bible, which he learned inside out in the original languages. But rather than allowing his intelligence to go proudly to his head, he humbly sought out God’s wisdom not as a thing to be known but a gift to be lived and nourished through prayer and shared with others. As a six year old boy, he used to give powerful homilies to his family members and other parishioners on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation at Christmas time. Eventually after he had become a Capuchin Franciscan, he became a famous preacher of conversion, first to Catholics in traditional mission and sermons, then to Protestants in Germany who had left during the Reformation and finally, at Pope Paul V’s request, to the Jews in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. In all three circumstances, his enfleshment of the beauty of God’s mercy, his awe at God’s holy wisdom, and his radiance of the happiness that comes from walking in the Lord’s way brought many to profound conversion, healing and the fullness of faith through the Catholic Church. At the beginning of Mass today, we prayed to God the Father to grant us “that in the same spirit [of St. Lawrence], we may know what must be done and, through his intercession, bring it to completion.” He’s one who reveals to us the power of God’s mercy pervading every work.
  • The second thing I’d like to focus on would be the Lord’s pedagogy with regard to what we do every morning here, as we enter into Jesus’ new and eternal fulfillment of what God trained the Jews to do in the Passover. The Lord wants to give us a discipline throughout the Old Testament so that we would be able to appreciate the meaning of this sacrifice, enter into it fully and live it. I’d like to pull out several elements from the training given in the first reading in preparation for the first and then annual celebration of the 14th of the Month of Nisan for what we need to grasp and do to celebrate its fulfillment daily in the Mass.
  • The first element is the preparation for the celebration. God has the Israelites procure an umblemished lamb on the 10th of the month, on the “Monday” of the week when it would be sacrificed on the “Friday.” Why wouldn’t have God just told the Jews to get a lamb the morning of the sacrifice? He evidently wanted them to spend time with the lamb. He wanted them to have the lamb around them. He wanted them to be thinking about the sacrifice for a good deal of time before it would be sacrificed. Likewise for us as we prepare for the fulfillment of the Passover rite, God wants us to spend time with the Lamb to be sacrificed. That’s why our prayer, our adoration, is so important for our properly celebrating the Mass. God doesn’t want us just to show up. He wants us to show up after a period of contact. He wants us to know the one we’re sacrificing. He wants the sacrifice to be dearer to us than just sacrificing a lamb with whom there’s no relationship at all. We won’t appreciate it nearly as much.
  • The second element is the preparation of the lamb. God says that it is to be “roasted whole, with its heads and shanks and inner organs” and prepared with “unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” There’s great symbolism in all of this. God wants us ultimately to join in the sacrifice fully. He wants the entirety of us to become part of the entirety of the sacrifice of Jesus. He doesn’t want us holding anything back, neither the stuff we like or the stuff that’s hard, the stuff that’s bitter or sweet. He wants all of it to be integrated into the sacrifice. The unleavened bread not only points to the fact that we shouldn’t be too focused on the bread (in contrast to the lamb) but that we want God to provide the leaven.
  • The third element we can mention is how we are to eat it. He tells the Israelites, “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight.” He wants them to eat it not as a feast that it meant to last, but as a Passover starter, as a means by which they can be ready for the exodus. Many times we are tempted to eat the Feast at the Top of Mt. Tabor just wanting to build booths there to keep the ecstasy going. But God wants us to eat with our tunics rolled up, with sandals on our feed and ready to move to the bottom of Mt. Tabor to serve God and serve others. Is that the way we approach Mass? Ready to receive God’s strength so that we can then hastily move to take him to others? Or do we think that God wants us to ignore the words at the end of Mass where he says, “Go [in peace] to announce the Gospel of the Lord, [glorifying God with your life]”?
  • The fourth element is about the blood. God tells the Israelites, “Take some of [the lamb’s] blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb.” This was essential for the avenging angel to pass by their home and their first-born sons be spared. If they didn’t do this, their first born sons would be dead on the morrow. We can sometimes look at all of this with a sense of horror, that God took the first born sons of all of the Egyptians, and there was obviously great wailing at the death of children. The reality is that even in doing this God was being merciful for not taking the lives of everyone present. The avenging angel was an angel of justice. The Egyptians deserved to die for their sins. God limited himself to just the first born son, who was the heir, who was the one in whom so often everyone would place their hope. And it’s not just the Egyptians who deserved to die in their sins, it’s the Israelites and all of us. In the new and eternal Passover, we don’t take Jesus’ blood and wipe it on the lintels of our Churches or Chapels, we don’t wipe it on our foreheads, we take it within so that we might have the Father’s firstborn Son who was sacrificed for us flow totally within us. And we need to grasp that we need his blood to be saved. In the consecration of the Precious Blood, Jesus said that his blood was being given “for the forgiveness of sins,” and to appreciate what’s happening and celebrate it well, we need to recognize that we’re sinners who ought to die but who have been saved through the blood of the Lamb whose blood is meant to mingle with our own such that together with him we might “pour out” our blood for the salvation of others.
  • The final element is about the need to eat the Lamb. It was crucial for the Jews to consume the Lamb, to become one with the sacrifice. If they didn’t, as Scott Hahn made famous in his tremendous teaching on the Fourth Cup, their first born sons would have been dead on the morrow. Likewise, we need to eat the Lamb. Jesus stresses for us in his Bread of Life discourse that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we will have no life in us, but if we eat and drink Him we will live forever. This consuming of the Lord is meant not to be a magical act, but one of communion, helping us to become whom we eat, but in our freedom we need to hunger for this transformation, for us to learn how to love like the Lord.
  • Today as we come forward to celebrate this Mass, we have prepared in prayer, we are ready to be sacrificed whole with the Lord, we have girded our loins and put sandals and shoes on our feet, we are about to become one with Jesus’ saving blood and nourishing body, so that we grasp that we are to become one with his mercy as we offer this sacrifice together with him. “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?,” we asked with the Psalmist today. And we replied, “I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord!” That’s what we do as we enter into this new and eternal Passover every morning, an exodus meant to lead us not from Egypt into the promised land but from life into the eternal promised land of heaven.

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 EX 11:10—12:14

Although Moses and Aaron performed various wonders
in Pharaoh’s presence,
the LORD made Pharaoh obstinate,
and he would not let the children of Israel leave his land.
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,
“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar;
you shall reckon it the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month
every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb,
one apiece for each household.
If a family is too small for a whole lamb,
it shall join the nearest household in procuring one
and shall share in the lamb
in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.
The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then,
with the whole assembly of Israel present,
it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.
They shall take some of its blood
and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel
of every house in which they partake of the lamb.
That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
It shall not be eaten raw or boiled, but roasted whole,
with its head and shanks and inner organs.
None of it must be kept beyond the next morning;
whatever is left over in the morning shall be burned up.
“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.
It is the Passover of the LORD.
For on this same night I will go through Egypt,
striking down every first born of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you;
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt,
no destructive blow will come upon you.“This day shall be a memorial feast for you,
which all your generations shall celebrate
with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”

Responsorial Psalm PS 116:12-13, 15 AND 16BC, 17-18

R. (13) I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.
How shall I make a return to the LORD
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
R. I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people.
R. I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.

Alleluia JN 10:27

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
My sheep hear my voice, says the Lord,
I know them, and they follow me.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MT 12:1-8

Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath.
His disciples were hungry
and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him,
“See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to the them, “Have you not read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions
but only the priests could lawfully eat?
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath
and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”