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MARCH 6, 2011: NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28.32
Romans 3:21-25, 28
Matthew 7:21-27

I have no idea who created the proverb “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but he or she could have been one of today’s sacred authors. Both Deuteronomy’s Moses and Matthew’s Jesus deal with the phenomenon of people who know what God wants them to do, but who never get around to doing it.

We only have the book of Deuteronomy because its readers’ ancestors had experienced the Babylonian Exile - ancient Judaism’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined. Most Jews thought it could never happen. Even when the Northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and a large percentage of its inhabitants were carted off to Nineveh, Judah and Jerusalem were spared. So when the Babylonians invaded more than a century later, people thought they once again would avoid destruction. Just as Yahweh had stopped Tiglath-pileser at Jerusalem’s gates in the 8th century, its inhabitants believed Yahweh would also defeat Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century. The Chosen People were on a 20 game winning streak.

They were unprepared for the shock of 596 when the Babylonians actually captured Jerusalem; even more unprepared 10 years later when, after a failed revolt, Nebuchadnezzar’s army returned to finish the job. Jerusalem was destroyed, its temple turned into a pile of rubble, and all the influential and powerful Jewish leaders and craftsmen deported to Babylon to begin a more than 50 year exile. Things were never the same for Yahweh’s biblical people after that disastrous event.

How could such a catastrophe have happened? Had Yahweh deserted Yahweh’s people? The author of Deuteronomy came up with an answer: Yahweh’s people had deserted Yahweh.

That’s why Moses dramatically outlines the distinction between obeying and not obeying Yahweh’s commandments. Pre-exilic Jews were offered a blessing or a curse. Because they had refused to carry out God’s “statutes and decrees,” they were now suffering the curse of deportation.

Matthew’s Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount with a parallel warning. He doesn’t threaten his people with exile; he’s more concerned with their missing the opportunity of “entering the kingdom of heaven:” experiencing God working in their daily lives. Jesus says something that Luke would later make the mantra of his two volume work. The perfect disciple not only listens to God’s word, he or she also carries it out.

“Not everyone,” Jesus observes, “who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”

Yet, as important as our actions are, they must be driven by the proper intentions. We must always know what God expects. That’s why Moses tells his people, “Bind them (the laws) at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead.” Though usually given as the biblical basis for “phylacteries,” this verse actually goes deeper than the practice of tying small boxes containing Torah regulations on one’s forearm and forehead. Yahweh’s will should be at the center of our lives, not just something external to those lives.

Paul agrees. He doesn’t know how we can be other Christs without imitating the actions of the first Christ. But he also knows the importance of first imitating the mentality of Christ. It’s that unique commitment which “justifies” us, even if we can’t carry out everything God commands. All Christians are in the same boat. Only when our minds mesh with Jesus’ mind can we be certain we’re doing what God wants us to do.

It should be clear to almost everyone that some who claim they’re acting in the name of God wouldn’t recognize God’s will, even if it bit them in some conspicuous part of their body.