ALL FOR GOD OR NOTHING
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 1 Kings 18:20-39; Ps 16:1-2, 4-5, 8, 11; Mt 5:17-19 ]
In the first reading, Elijah challenged the King and his fellow Israelites at Mount Carmel to make a radical choice for Yahweh or Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility. He said, “How long, do you mean to hobble first on one leg then on the other? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” What was their response? “But the people never said a word.” Why were they silent? Firstly, it could be because there were some who were unsure whether Yahweh was a more powerful God than Baal, the god of fertility. In their minds, it seems Baal was the one responsible for the weather, the fecundity of the land, and a good harvest. Secondly, it could be because they wanted the best of both worlds. They needed Yahweh whom they saw as a Military commander that helped Israel to defeat their enemies, and Baal for a successful harvest. Therefore, it would be best to have two gods to protect their interests. Furthermore, by worshipping Baal, they would have gained the favour of King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel who brought the pagan deity into the country. Thirdly, there were those like Jezebel who had no faith in Yahweh. Consequently, they were wobbling in their decision.
This was the same attitude of the Jewish leaders during the time of Jesus. On one hand, they appeared to be upholders of the Law. They were teachers of the Law. Many of the Mosaic Laws required application to concrete situations. So with the elaboration, there were altogether 613 laws that the faithful Jews had to observe. However, they were more concerned with fulfilling the letter of the law than the spirit. Such observance made them “Pharisees”, which means “the Separated Ones” because they were seen to be holier than the rest. However, those who were legalistic about the Law would try to find loopholes to explain away the laws. They were not sincere. On one hand, they wanted to follow the laws but on the other hand, they were hypocritical because as the Lord said, “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (Mt 23:13f)
Is not this the same attitude of some Catholics? How many of us, whilst professing ourselves as Catholics also waver in our commitment to the Lord? Most of us are like the Israelites, with a pair of legs standing in two boats. On one hand, we love Jesus and the gospel. However, we also love the world, power, wealth, pleasures, a luxurious life, popularity, and fame. On Sundays, we go to Church and behave as good Catholics for an hour during Mass. After the service, we behave like pagans, living selfishly and in a self-centered way, doing and saying things that are contrary to the teachings of Christ. We live much like the rest of the world. We do not pray. We do not read the Word of God.
Nevertheless, the scripture is clear; there is no neutrality or ambiguity in our choice for God. Like Elijah, the Lord said the same thing to His disciples. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Mt 6:24) To the rich man, the Lord said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk 10:21) He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Mt 16:24-26) Finally, after His controversial discourse on the Eucharist as His flesh, He said to the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn 6:67)
How can we make this radical choice for the Lord? We have Elijah and our Lord as our exemplars in faith. Elijah was a zealous prophet for the Lord. His mission was to keep Israel in the faith of Moses. He wanted to call the nation, the King and the people back to God and the Covenant. However, because of the idolatrous practices promoted by the King under the powerful influence of Jezebel, his wife, many left Yahweh for the pagan gods. Elijah was not one who would compromise his faith. He was willing to take up the challenge of purifying the people in their faith in God. He said, “I, I alone, am left as a prophet of the Lord, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty.” Actually, this was not quite accurate because earlier on, Obadiah also revered the Lord greatly, and “when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, he took a hundred prophets, hid them fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water.” (1 Kgs 18:4)
Secondly, he had a deep faith in the Lord. He challenged the prophets of Baal to a test to prove that the Lord was God. When the prophets of Baal called upon their god with all their might, from morning to midday with loud cries to consume the holocaust with fire, nothing happened. However, when Elijah prayed with trust and confidence, God did not fail him for “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this they fell on their faces. ‘The Lord is God,’ they cried, ‘the Lord is God.'” Indeed, by this act, Elijah demonstrated that Yahweh is not just a Warrior God but the Creator as well, who has power over nature. He is the Creator God and Israel can rely totally on Him alone.
Jesus, too, is our model in our commitment to the Lord. He would not waver in His commitment to God His Father. When the devil tempted Him at the start of the ministry to take the easy way out by using His power to change stone to bread, to jump down from the pinnacle to prove His Sonship, and offered Him the wealth of the nations, Jesus told the Devil off. (Mt 4:1-11) When Peter tried to dissuade Him from taking the path to Calvary, He said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:23) Jesus clearly said in today’s gospel, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.”
Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses. To fulfill means to bring to completion what Moses taught. The laws of Moses were meant for the Israelites during that time to guide them to live in harmony as a nation so that they could defend themselves from their enemies. Under the Law, there were moral laws, particularly, the Decalogue; Civil law governing the relationships among the peoples and Liturgical laws for worship and sacrifices. With the coming of Christ, the sacrifice of the Old Testament was replaced by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Civil laws could no longer be applied because these must now be adapted to the new situation as needs had changed. What were still kept were the evergreen moral principles enshrined in the Ten Commandments.
However, what perfects the law is not so much the fulfillment of the letter of the law. Rather, it is the spirit of love behind the observance of all the laws. Perfecting the law is not about observing the laws in a legalistic and meticulous way but carrying them out in the spirit of love for God and our fellowmen. This is why the Lord also said, “Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.” In the final analysis, it is not about the laws, but living out the laws in a spirit of love and sincerity that shows our commitment to God and to His people. Hence, we need to pray that God will continue to send the fire from heaven that purified the people, burnt away their sins during the days of Elijah and fill us with the presence of God as at Pentecost.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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