Moses said to the people: "Ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today. So acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time."
Jesus told his disciples, "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? "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Today begins a series of sermons from Deuteronomy, the book that makes fidelity it major theme. It seems to have been one of the favourite parts of the Bible for Jesus, who quoted it freely during the temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:4 / Deut 8:3) and later, when discussing the first and most important law (Matthew 27:37 / Deut 6:5). Deuteronomy stands a line from Moses through the earliest settlement in the land and later to the great religious renewal called the "Deuteronomic reform" (2 Kings 22-23). Its dominant quality is its homiletic style, for it does much more than repeat the law of Moses; it exhorts and reasons from a spirit of compassion and love. Some of its memorable lines have become the daily prayer of every Israelite and will be repeated in tomorrow's liturgy: Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart (Deut 6:4-5).
In today's reading God calls on Israel to remember its past history and to wonder: Has anything so great ever happened before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire? Deuteronomy then asks for obedience, fidelity to Yahweh alone, in all the Lord's "statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you today." In its homiletic style Deuteronomy is continually stressing the word "today." Each day is a new today, a new opportunity to profess loyal and grateful obedience to the Lord. Then you will "have long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you forever."
Nahum, in its three short chapters, equals the best of Hebrew poetry. Its brilliance is evident even in English translation. He celebrates his people's victory over the oppression and cruelty imposed on them by Assyria. We see, hear, feel all at once the terrifying assault on the city walls: the crack of the whip, the rumbling sound of wheels, horses galloping, chariots bounding, cavalry charging, the flame of the sword, the flash of the spear, the many slain, the heaping corpses the endless bodies to stumble on.
After this warlike imagery, we need the sayings of Jesus. Even for us in our sins, death need not mean utter collapse and destruction. By obediently following Jesus to death, we will not experience the ultimate death described by the prophet. Ours will be the new, abundant life of Deuteronomy. That rich and peaceful existence begins in ourselves and reaches outward. Each act of obedience can seem restrictive and even destructive of life. Yet if obedience is from a religious faith, in response to the will of God and loving concern, if it lays before us the immense possibilities of the "promised land," if obedience surrounds us with peace in our homes and neighbourhoods, then it opens up for us a whole new field of energetic activity and creative ingenuity.
Jesus often speaks in the language of paradox. One of the most striking instances of that is to be found in today's gospel, when Jesus says, "anyone who wants to save his life will loose it; but anyone who looses his life for my sake will find it." Another way of expressing that is to say, "if we seek ourselves only, we will lose ourselves, whereas if we reach beyond ourselves towards God and towards his Son Jesus we will find our true selves." If we look to ourselves alone and our own needs and preferences, we risk losing ourselves, whereas if we look towards the Lord, which will always mean looking towards others, we will find life in this world and eternal life in the next.
Our Lord expressed this fundamental paradox of his teaching in another way when he said, "give and it will be given to you." In other words, it is in giving that we receive. Our own experience of life teaches us the truth contained in this paradox. It is when we look beyond ourselves to others, to the Lord present in others, that we experience the Lord's own joy, the Lord's own life, which is a foretaste of the joy and life of the kingdom of heaven. [MH]