Christ Appears to the Disciples on the Mountain in Galilee, Panel from the Maesta Altarpiece,
Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308 – 1311, Museo dell’Opera metropolitana del Duomo (Siena)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40
May 30, 2021
Today we read from the Book of Deuteronomy. It is literally translated as “Second Law” but might be better called the second reading of the law. It is the 5th book of the Bible and concludes the Pentateuch/Torah and is composed as a series of addresses by Moses to the Hebrews as they prepare to invade Canaan. Moses reviews the law with the people and tells them that without it they will perish. This may seem to be an exaggeration. As we have many times seen in examining these readings, the concerns of the time that the texts were written down are as important as when they occurred and by the time the final edition of Deuteronomy was written, they had both died and rose. Rabbinic Judaism held that Moses lived from 1391 to 1271 BC. Therefore, his original exhortation would have been in the late 1200s BC. This is obviously a guess, and we are not quite certain to what kind of group, he was speaking nor exactly of what the law consisted.
We are on firmer ground during the reign of King Josiah, who reigned between 640 and 609 BC. Two developments marked his times. In 627, the Assyrian king, who effectively controlled Judean kingdom, died and there was a succession battle. Josiah saw this as a moment to seek independence. Around the same time, he started to renovate the temple and discovered a copy of the law. This we may assume is the central part of the book of Deuteronomy. (12:4-7) This discovery provoked a religious revival and part of this revival was editing this primitive version of Deuteronomy and adapting it for his day. (32-34)
Therefore, as they sought to free themselves not only from the military connection with Assyria but also its mental and spiritual dominion, Josiah’s editors included new material on refusing to follow foreign gods. This meant destroying temples and places of worship to other gods in the countryside, worshipping only in Jerusalem (12 4-7)) and not listening to any other god or supposed source of wisdom (6:14) They did not however fail to learn from the great prophets of the 8th century, the importance of social justice. There are many instances of this but let us stop and ponder the following:
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods,(Dt 10:17–19)
the LORD of lords, the great God,
mighty and awesome, who has no favorites,
accepts no bribes;
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him.
So you too must befriend the alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
These were certainly noble aspirations, but Josiah was killed in 609 BC and a series of events led to the destruction of the temple and the exile of the leadership of Judea to Babylon by 587 BC.
For the final editor of Deuteronomy this was the result of more than poor military and political judgements. They did not obey the LORD,
When you have had children and children’s children,(Dt 4:25)
and become complacent in the land,
if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything,
thus doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God,
and provoking him to anger,
The LORD will scatter you among the peoples;
only a few of you will be left among the nations
where the LORD will lead you.
This is more than a tale of woe; the editor of Deuteronomy understands that the LORD wants a relationship with his people and will never abandon them.
From there you will seek the LORD your God,(Dt 4:29–31)
and you will find him if you search after him
with all your heart and soul.
In your distress, when all these things have happened
to you in time to come,
you will return to the LORD your God and heed him.
Because the LORD your God is a merciful God,
he will neither abandon you nor destroy you;
he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors
that he swore to them.
Although it seemed the end of the people, one of the great miracles of history occurred and Persian leader Cyrus offered the people an opportunity to return to Jerusalem as his colonial administrators. As we noted, the book is composed as a series of sermons of Moses. Those written by the final editor wish to show both why a loving God would allow his people to be exiled and how they were able to maintain themselves as a people without temple or homeland.
It is important for us to remember that the final editor is looking at the full history of his people. He knows that the more prosperous upper kingdom – Israel – was snuffed out 200 years before, he feels the captivity in Egypt in his bones and has himself experienced the exile in Babylon. What has allowed them to remain a people? It cannot be armies or financial prosperity nor even worship in the temple. His answer is their way of life.
The statutes, decrees, and commandments of Israel are more than the sum of their parts. They form a way of life, a teaching which linked everything from what one are to how one treated aliens in one’s midst to the intervention of God in their history. This, then as now, has sustained the Jewish people.
In today’s section before Moses tells the people to obey the law, he gives a brief overview of the LORD’S graciousness. It is not only that he fought for them and saved them from the Egyptians, but that he shared himself with them:
Did a people ever hear the voice of God(Dt 4:33)
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
For us to maintain this relationship “we must fix in your heart, that the LORD is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other”.
It is when they realize that the LORD first seeks a relationship with them and that this is based on love that he reminds them of the importance of the law.
You must keep his statutes and commandments(Dt 4:39)
that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever.
It is the hinge of their relationship with God. Obedience to the law is the clearest sign of a commitment to the Lord.
A religion, which contains a strong moral component, will be of great social utility, but perhaps because of that can fall into the trap of reducing itself to only morality. Sometimes, this is obvious other times subtle. Today’s reading gives us a means of preventing this from occurring. Before speaking of the law, Moses proclaimed the great deeds of God, most especially the recently accomplished Exodus. Before obedience to law, there is the experience of divine love. The most formative part of the Jew’s relationship to God is gratitude. So must it be with us, for we in Easter have just celebrated an even greater act of divine love. The mechanical observance of commandments perhaps will keep the world safe, but will not move our hearts. We too must be moved by gratitude and where there is gratitude to God, there is the gift of joy from God. Through joy, we know we got it right.