Open the Sunday Readings for any week of the year and one is flooded with words and images and thoughts. Our readings today are no different.
- That arresting opening sentence which invites our longing: Let us set ourselves to know the Lord.
- The wonderful natural images - dawn and light, clouds and dew, showers and spring rains and earth.
- The exasperation of the Lord as he listens to the empty resolutions of his fickle people: What am I to do with you, Ephraim? What am I to do with you, Judah?
- The unerring judgment with which the Lord throws those natural images back in the faces of his over-confident people: This love of yours is like a morning cloud, like the dew that quickly disappears.
- And then, in an aside to the reader: This is why I have torn them to pieces by the prophets, why I slaughtered them with the words from my mouth.
- The Gospel startles us with Matthew's instantaneous response to Jesus' command to follow: ... and he got up and followed him.
- The unintentionally self-disclosing question of the Pharisees: Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?
- And Jesus' multi-layered response to their pride: It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.
Only when we have read and re-read and absorbed these two readings do the various issues settle into a focus which permits us to hear the urgent and almost distressed entreaty of God: What I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.
Jesus repeats the appeal of his heavenly Father: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.
These words are the sharp point of the arrow of God's revelation to us today. For all their seeming trust in the Lord the people are, in fact, known for their failure to trust and obey God. Their vacillation is the stuff of legend. Even now their so-called repentance is shallow and capricious. They want to restore the sacrifices and take up again the rituals of holocaust. God's response to their resolutions is a sad shake of the head: What am I to do with you?
If we are reading these passages attentively we should at this stage feel a creeping discomfort as we begin to sense that God is not speaking only to his Chosen People and that Jesus is not just challenging the Pharisees.
Somehow we all know that we must make atonement to God for our sins and show our love for him. The people knew that too. The notion of making sacrifices as a sign of their love was instinctive and yet, as they offered sheep and goats and bulls and cows and bushels of wheat and barley, they knew that what they really should be offering, the only real gift, the only acceptable gift, was themselves. Everything else was just a substitute.
Pope Benedict says in one of his books that the most extreme example of this giving of things to God is human sacrifice. This is the clearest and most horrific example of our refusal to give ourselves. And so we give someone else.
In this sense the Chosen People were exactly like us. They gave things to God and God said, 'But I want you.' And we are like that. We will give anything - cans of food, clothing, toys, money, so long as we can avoid giving ourselves.
How do we begin to give ourselves?
To give ourselves to God begins by showing a willingness to keep his commandments. The one who loves me is the one who keeps my commandments.
I think you will agree with me readily enough that we all, or at least most of us, avoid giving ourselves to God. What would you say if I suggested that this is why we all, or most of us, find love so difficult? It’s because we all know that love ultimately leads to giving ourselves. We cannot avoid it. That is why God calls for our love - because it leads us down the path of self-donation and at the end of this path he is there, waiting to receive us.
It is not a long path. The saints tell us it can be travelled in an instant - instant holiness! Love takes us there in an instant.
It's funny how we fear what we want. Peter wanted it but denied the Lord when it was offered. He was unable to give himself totally until the last moments of his life. But how gloriously and completely did he then succeed! His secret was love.
We, no less than Peter and the whole company of the saints, are invited and called to give ourselves to God in love. It begins, as I have already said, with keeping his commandments. How simple, how practical and, with his grace, how possible!