Daily Homily: I Will Restore the Tents of Jacob

Tuesday of the 18th Week in Ordinary Time, Year Two

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Jeremiah 30:1-2,12-15,18-22
Psalm 102:16-18,19-21,29 and 22-23
Matthew 15:1-2,10-14

Jeremiah saw the Babylonian Exile (6th century BC) as a time of purification and grace. The exiles from Judah who are sent to Babylon are compared to good figs; those who remain in Jerusalem or go down to Egypt are compared to bad figs (24:1-10). God promises to bring the first group, the «remnant», back to the land; he promises to give them a heart to know that he is the Lord. Of them, God says: «they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart» (Jeremiah 24:7).

For this renewed and redeemed remnant, God will do great deeds as he has done in the past: «Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord» (Jeremiah 23:3-4). «Jeremiah employs the language of creation and redemption: to deliver the people from exile and bring them into their land recalls the great act of deliverance from Egypt, while the expression ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is a direct quote of the command God gave to the first man and woman at creation (Gen 1:28). Perhaps more to the point, this command is given to Noah and his family after the flood. God reestablished the covenant with Noah and his descendants and then commanded them to repopulate the planet (Gen 9). The remnant in Jeremiah’s day, after the destruction that overwhelmed them, is in the same situation» (T. Leclerc, Introduction to the Prophets, Paulist Press, 266).

In his letter to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah predicts that their exile will last seventy years (29:10). God will then visit the people and bring them back to Judah. God promises, in today’s first reading, to restore the fortunes of Israel and Judah; he will raise up (a descendant of) David for them (30:9). The exile was a punishment for sin, but the time will come when God restores the fortunes of the tents of Jacob (Israel). The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, the palace (the kingship) will stand once again. The congregation (the liturgical assembly) will be established before God. The prince of the people will be one of them, for the ruler of Israel shall come forth from their midst. In all this Jeremiah is slowly building up to the promise of the Messiah and the New Covenant, in which the people will truly be God’s people and God will truly be their God.

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus began bringing the Old Law to fulfillment in the New Law of the New Covenant. In today’s Gospel, Jesus deals with the ritual obligation of washing one’s hands before eating a meal. The Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus why his disciples break the tradition of the elders in this way. The question is not about a commandment of God, but about a tradition of the elders. The practice of washing one’s hands before meals was not actually a requirement of the Law (the Torah), but was an extension of the mandate that required priests to wash themselves before serving in the sanctuary (Exodus 30:17-21). «The Pharisees, as a heightened expression of piety, applied this priestly standard of purity to all Israel, requiring even laypeople throughout the land to cleanse their hands before taking a meal. So it is that ceremonial washing became part of the Pharisees’ supplementary code of religious law, here called the tradition of the elders» (C. Mitch and E. Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Baker Academic, 194-195).

Jesus turns to the crowd and declares that we are defiled not by what we eat, and whether or not we wash our hands before meals, but by what we think, say and do. Evil thoughts and evil intentions of the heart lead to other sins like murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander and blasphemy (Matthew 15:18-19). «These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man» (Matthew 15:20). Jesus replies to the Pharisees, who accuse his disciples of violating a tradition, by referring to their violation of God’s commandments.

Instead of welcoming Jesus’ teaching and being purified by God’s Word, the Pharisees find God’s Word to be a stumbling block to their religious system (Matthew 15:12). At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is that holiness ultimately comes from God and that those who are pure of heart will see God. «In the place of traditional prescriptions, Jesus puts individual responsibility, in place of pious appearance, the interior freedom to build up or to destroy; and in place of hands to be washed, the burning activity of the heart» (E. Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. 2, Ignatius Press, 411). It is a lesson that we have to learn each day. God’s word is a fire that purifies us and today Jesus urges us to hear this word, understand it, and put it into practice.

Readers may contact Father Jason Mitchell at mitchelljason2011@gmail.com.

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Jason Mitchell

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