So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children after you.
Glorify the Lord, O Jerusalem;
praise your God, O Zion.
For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;
he has blessed your children within you. (R./)
He sends forth his command to the earth;
swiftly runs his word!
He spreads snow like wool;
frost he strews like ashes. (R./)
He has proclaimed his word to Jacob,
his statutes and his ordinances to Israel.
He has not done thus for any other nation;
his ordinances he has not made known to them. (R./)
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Deuteronomy sets out a code of laws that do not exist for their own sake, but as a help for people to show their devotion to God. Most of this fifth book of the Bible (called the "second law" as "Deutero " means 2nd) consists of fervent motivational homilies. This book frequently mentions "today" as the very day when Moses receives the law from the Lord and gives it to the people in God's name. It tries to guide our attitude to God, as one who speaks to us. "Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today" (Deut. 6:5-6). We note the evocative repetition here of the word today.
This God is closer than any pagan god to its devotees, and is to be loved with all our heart. The Lord is to be dearer to us than anything else we value in life, including life itself. It seems that Jesus himself turned to Deuteronomy in forming his own response to life. It was among his favourite texts for its sense of compassion to neighbour and devotion to God each passing day. Whether in the temptation scene (Matt 4:1-11) or in answering the questions about the first and greatest law (Mk 12:28-34), Jesus used this book. Deuteronomy resonated the core attitude of Jesus; it spoke to him more than any other book in the Bible. It helps us appreciate Jesus' reflection: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them . . . not the smallest part of a letter of the law shall be done away with until it all comes true."
We want to grow into the mind of Christ, so that the least wish of God becomes our guide to living. God in Jesus is that close to us. He speaks today, this moment. He appeals to the love of all our heart. Love such as this, stirred within our heart by God's immediate presence, happily takes away our liberty as we spontaneously seek this clasp of love. Without deciding between a million and one options we have chosen the very best, and all the world will testify: "This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people."
What a wealth of imagery Jesus used, to describe what is important in life. He compares his liberating message to new wine, and this new wine needs new wineskins, flexible enough to carry the dynamic Gospel message. The traditional, legalist forms of religion would no longer do. At the same time, he showed great respect for tradition, his own Jewish tradition. The Scriptures of his people had nourished and inspired him. Elsewhere he says that he has come not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to complete them. He did not pretend to be starting from scratch.
Jesus' example suggests that we don't simply jettison our religious tradition but we don't just canonize it either. The church is always in need of reform and renewal; the new wine of the Holy Spirit will always require new wineskins. The work of renewal will always involve honouring what is best in our tradition by allowing its rich potential to be fully realized.