Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Jesus has been sung as gentle, meek, mild and loving down through the ages. Today’s gospel points to those qualities, which Jesus embodied. The first reading recalled those qualities were within the heart of God long before God in Jesus walked with us. Take a tour of torah with me and see.
Torah is that Hebrew word I try to help people appreciate because it has everything to do with Jesus and his mission portrayed by Matthew’s gospel. Torah is rich in meanings. Torah is text: it refers to the first five books of the Old Testament, the Books of Moses. Moses was God’s mouthpiece, who established God’s covenant with the people God liberated from slavery to be uniquely God’s own. An outstanding feature of that covenant was that God was a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity./1/ By covenant God demanded these very qualities of the people God liberated. Spending one’s life trying to embody those divine qualities makes a person uniquely God’s own.
Torah also means “commandment.” God offered people ways to embody true mercy, patience, kindness and fidelity. Torah is not trapped in its text but comes alive as people embody it day to day. The many commandments of the relationship with God called Judaism may seem frivolous or even meaningless to us. Each commandment offered a way to live the covenant with God; to be godly; and to draw others to God. Torah is not trapped between the covers of a bible. A Jewish friend once told me, “Judaism is not a religion, it’s a way of life.” Torah is a way of living.
The scribes and Pharisees became overly focused on the commands found in the text of torah, and they forgot their purpose: to live God’s covenant by practicing true mercy, patience, kindness and fidelity. They didn’t see torah’s commands as a pattern of freedom but became enslaved by them and sought to enslave others, too. Yes, the scribes and the Pharisees [had] taken their seat on the chair of Moses. It would have been better if they just sat, but they acted; so Jesus warned, “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them./2/ A new, human bondage Jesus transformed into a redeeming bond because Jesus personified torah. To appreciate torah better appreciates Jesus. To encounter Jesus, who personified torah, is to encounter the desires of God. Jesus is the destination of this tour: from text to covenant-action to person, who models for us how to live.
Because Jesus was gentle and meek, Jesus personified membership in the realm of the merciful and gracious God. Jesus revealed the desires of God just as torah did. Jesus freed people from the hardships imposed by scribes and Pharisees by offering an easy yoke. Torah was the first “yoke of the kingdom of God.”/3/ Jesus replaced it by fulfilling it and revealing it, so that we might learn from the one who personifies God’s desires, God’s heart and God’s covenant.
Down through the ages, as people lost connection with God’s heart, many saw Jesus as a milksop, not the messiah; as misguided, not the new Moses. Take your tour, a tour of yourself and of the ways Jesus desires to free you; to guide you to truly real life; to reconnect you with himself, his Father and other people; and to allow others to meet Jesus through you.
In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week, pause and tarry with the Trinity, who create, redeem and sustain you. Ask Mary and the saints to present you to Jesus and meet him as if for the first time. Praise and thank Jesus for and redeeming you. Ask Jesus to reveal to you your greatest need. I offer examples to jump-start your prayer:
Is your inmost self starved for quiet? Ask Jesus to anoint you with his peace. Do you desire everything or unnecessary things? Ask Jesus to reveal to you what will increase your desire for his life for you. Do you allow fleeting things to shape you? Learn from Jesus his timeless gift he offers you to transform you and make you his disciple.Close by saying slowly that prayer Jesus taught us, which binds us closer to him not with chains but with a pattern of freedom--his freedom, faith’s freedom, in order to walk with him and learn him.
/1/ Exodus 34.6.
/2/ Matthew 23.2-4.
/3/ Moshe Weinfeld, Normative and Sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple Period. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 34-35.
I am indebted to my teacher of New Testament, Luke Timothy Johnson, who taught me about torah and helped me meet Jesus, who personified it. He made his course available to a wider audience when he published it as The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986, rev. 1999.
Wiki-images of a page from a manuscript of Matthew's gospel (the genealogy of Jesus) and of a torah scroll are in the public domain.