People – And A Person – Of the Covenant (Homily, 5th Sunday of Lent)
Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a Conservative Jewish convert, physiology Ph.D., a marriage and family counselor, author, and syndicated radio host. Together with Rabbi Steward Vogel from Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, California, they wrote, The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life. In it Schlessinger writes: Each day we make innumerable, seemingly minute decisions about things that don’t really seem earth-shattering. So what if we broke a promise? Lots of promises are broken, and people get over it and get on with it. So what if we find passion in another bed while we or they are still married? We’re entitled to derive pleasure and self- fulfillment. So what if we are too focused on work, TV, or clubs to spend time with family? No one has the right to tell us what to do. I wanted my parents to be proud of me, and I wanted people to like me. These were my motivations for “being good.”
But that led to complications. Even nice and popular people don’t always like you when you:
Won’t “go along” with cheating (“So what. It’s no big deal, Lorie it’s not a subject in your major—it’s just an elective…”),
Don’t take drugs (“So what. It’s a great feeling—don’t be such a drag…”),
Don’t engage in sex (“So what. You’re not going to be popular with the guys, Lorie if you’re such a prude…”),
Won’t cut classes (“Oh, so what Lorie, stop being so compulsive—learn to loosen up and have some fun…”),
Won’t engage in protesting (“So what if we stop the university from functioning. We have a right to, if they’re not doing something our way or giving us what we want…”).
Consequently, I wasn’t “in” much with the in-crowd. It wasn’t as if my college chums were “bad.” The freedom afforded by being away from home gives an opportunity for experimentation away from parental authority, out of view of university authority and in the company of others who are supporting the notion of individual choice, taste, preference, desire, values, and decisions.
However, there is a problem when one adds up all the “so-whats.” One ends up with a life without direction, meaning, purpose, value, integrity, or long-range joy.
Religion was also not a big deal in our lives. Religious types were all hypocrites. God was a silly myth for the weak. The idea of a “covenant” between God and people would put someone at odds with some contemporary Jews. For them, Judaism was seen as “a people’ or “a culture.” It was not something in which a person and, indeed, a whole people experienced God directly.
That all changed one night when “Dr. Laura” was watching TV with her son and a program about the Holocaust came on. The family counselor could not unravel the hatred for her young son. She could not solve the riddle why Jews were so hated. She couldn’t explain such brutality and evil. The woman born Jewish could not explain what a Jew was to her own son.
It was then that she decided to take her Jewish religion – and The Covenant – more seriously. Together with her husband and son they “re-converted” to Conservative Judaism. Within the context of this faith life, the idea of “covenant” is not only important; it becomes central. Covenant is mentioned four times in today’s First Reading from Jeremiah. Serious Jews take the covenant at Sinai as real and true. As evidence about the “truth” of the covenant, Schlessinger points to the continued existence of the Jewish people in spite of thousands of years of almost continuous attempts to eliminate them by great and powerful cultures, which have themselves become extinct.
But where does covenant get played out in the real world? What does it look and feel like? When interviewed once for a newspaper magazine section, the journalist commented that Schlessinger’s friends said she was a hard worker and was “doing well.” In reflecting momentarily about that “compliment,” Dr. Laura said, “Before I became a serious Jew, hearing that I was doing well would have been a wonderful compliment and relief. But now, with my motivation coming from quite a different place, it isn’t important to “be doing well.” I would only feel complimented if people said that I was ‘doing good,’”
People of the covenant are not the “chosen people” because they are special or smarter or better than other nations. They were chosen for a task – to show the world what God looks like. As God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) our actions are to re-create the world and make the world a better place (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) so that all who see them may say, “See how they love each other” (John 13:35).
But how do you do this when your marriage has lost its luster and temptations abound when you’re on the road on business? How does covenant work when your son or daughter is in drug rehab? Where does covenant fit when you feel you’re in a dead-end job and not providing well enough for your family?
Jeremiah 31:33 gives us an indication. The prophet writes, “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Under “the law” is understood routine and ritual and ceremony and liturgy. These are the structures into which a believer places him/herself. The believer integrates these into their daily life and then lets the rite carry them through the day.
In addition, Jesus doesn’t point out how to reach everlasting happiness and then send us on our way, as if we could make the journey by our own efforts. This is what God means when he talks about “my people.” On April 17, 2008 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke to bishops in Washington, D.C. The Holy Father said, “It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain the fulfillment of our deepest needs by our own efforts. This is an illusion.” God talks about my people” who are sent to others to support them when they are sad, confused, angry, hopeless, poor.