PHYLACTERIES, MEZUZAHS AND TORAH SCROLLS: A HOMILY ON THE 31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR B, REDEEMER HOUSE
One thing that will surprise anybody who know me today is that I used to stammer as a little boy. How I stopped stammering is still a mystery to me and my family. I used to be so embarrased by my stammering that whenever I am sent to deliver a message to someone, two things can happen. It is either I am so worried about my stammer that I will forget what the message is or I will be so afraid of forgetting the message but will stammer when I deliver it. It used to be that I will practice what to say when I get there and while I am practicing all will be well. But when I get there all hell will be let loose.
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Church gives us an opportunity to look back into our history, which is basically the history of the Jewish people. We will do this looking at four important moments. The first moment is the fall of Adam and Eve. This is considered the first sin and we often refer to it as the fall.
I use this term to refer to the time when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf in the wildernes. True, they had reasons to believe that Moses was not coming back to them, but they knew enough about God to know that He never fails. If the first fall is a fall, then this one is a crash. All that has happened from Genesis till this time should have prevented them from falling into such sin of infidelity to God, but they did. When Moses came down and saw what they were doing he literally broke the tablet of the law, which he was carrying. The joke is that Moses is the first to break all 10 commandments. Our first reading of today is written after this crash.
Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life; that your days may be prolonged. Hear therefore, O Israel and be careful to do them; that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.”: Moses is speaking to them as a group of very forgetful nation. He tells them to fear God and keep his commandment all the days of their lives. He tells them to ‘Shamar’ which is to hear. The word ‘Shamar’ can mean either to hear or to remember. He reminds them that there is only one God who should be loved above all things, and that this command should always be in their heart. The Jews therefore, knowing how forgetful they can be developed several rules around this. They have what they call the Phylacteries which every Jew must tie on his head and wear it wherever he is going. There are four passages contained in these phylacteries and our first reading is one of them. Just as a little boy I will be repeating whatever message I was sent, so also they have to wear these laws as a constant reminder. Another reminder is what they call the Mezuzah. This word means ‘doorpost’ and it comes from the fact that every Jewish home must have a Mezuzah at the doorpost and one would touch it and kill their hand before entering the house. We have an equivalence of it in some churches, where there is a holy water at the entrance of the church, which is meant to remind us of our baptism. Every Jew was also meant to have a coppy of the Torah Scroll, which he tries to memorize and recite constantly. Every Jewish king was required to hand-write the whole book of Deuteronomy. In fact, they believe that many kings failed because they disobeyed this rule. Also, each time a servant wants to committ himself permanently to his master, his ear is pierced with the mezuzah. All these might sound crazy to us, but this was the extent they were prepared to go in order not to forget God’s commandments.
At that time: One of the scribed came up to Jesus and aksed him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question.: When Jesus came, the Jews were very good at using the phylacteries and mezuzahs and torah scrolls, but there was a problem; they had forgoten why they used these things. They used them more in order to look good than in order to remind themselves of their covenant relationship with God. Jesus began to criticize them and condemn their hyprocrisy. He began to draw their attention from these practices to Himself, the Christ. It was hard for them to see anything good in Him, since he was condemning all their “good” practices.
Usually when Jesus speaks with the scribes and pharisees in the gospel, one would expect tension. Today’s gospel is one of the few passages where Jesus had an amicable conversation with a scribe or pharisee. The reason is because this scribe did not come with the intention of finding faults with Jesus or of testing Him to hear what He will say. He came as someone who was honestly seeking an answer. Jesus in turn quoted a passage which is contained in both the phylacteries as well as the mezuzahs; to love God above all things, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is a confirmation that Jesus was not against the keeping of the law, but against those who think that by wearing the phylacteries and mezuzah’s they are saved. The equivalence of that today will be those who wear all kinds of sacramentals and are always in church, but only use those as cover ups.
Brethren: The priests [of the former covenant] were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but Christ holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. Indeed, the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.: In order to understand our second rading, we have to recall the last thing Jesus said to the scribe in the Gospel. Jesus told him that he is not far from the kingdom of God. Then nobody dared to ask him any more question. Well, the little problem is; Jesus did not tell him that he is already saved. Jesus’ statement presupposes that there is still something left. But nobody is asking to know. Sometimes we are not asking because we are afraid of what the answer will be. Well, the answer is to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
The letter to the Hebrews from which our second reading is taken was written to Christians of Jewish origin. They had accepted Jesus as their Lord, but some of them were still caught in-between. As much as they accept Jesus, so much do they still want to be faithful to their Jewish tradition. Some of them were tempted to renounce Christ. This letter tells them the difference between Jesus the High priest of the new covenant and the Jewish high priests. Jesus is not just the High priest of the new covenant, but of an everlasting covenant, since He Himself is eternal. Other high priests loose their office as soon as they die, but we have a high priest that lives for ever.
In our prefaces, we always say it is right and just ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE to give thanks to God. If there is anything we should carry with us always and everywhere, it is not so much phylacteries and mezuzahs and torah scrolls, but as Christians, we put on the person of Christ and he goes with us always and everywhere. The law is no longer something we have to memorize and tie around ourselves. We are to enter into a deep relationship with Christ and no matter where we are or what we are doing, let us never forget that we are Christians. Yes, it is right and just always and everywhere to give Him thanks. Our whole life therefore, becomes and endless song of praise to the glory of God, because we love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our strength and we love our neighbour as ourselves.
I am Fr. Ifeanyichukwu Henry Nwokoro, CSsR. I am your fellow child of God and this is my way of sharing my daily reflections with you. Please feel free to leave a comment, suggestion or question. Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.
View all posts by Fr. Ifeanyichukwu Henry Nwokoro CSsR