Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Fifth Sunday of Lent: The Law Written On Our Hearts
This Lent the first readings have by and large presented covenants. Again, the term covenant means a binding agreement between people, or in the case of Sacred Scripture, between God and His people. On the First Sunday of Lent we heard about the Covenant God made with the people at the time of Noah, the Covenant of the Rainbow. We were reminded that God will never give up on his people, or on any of us as individuals. The Second Sunday, we heard about the Covenant of Faith made between God and Abraham. We were encouraged to have the faith of Abraham and to trust in God when we are challenged. We might not know how, but somehow God will set things straight. The Third Sunday of Lent presented the Covenant of the Law God made with Moses, the covenant of the Ten Commandments. This Sunday we just heard Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Covenant of the Heart. This will all lead to the Paschal Mystery and the Blood of the New and Eternal Covenant, the covenant we will renew on our altar in a few minutes.
Our focus today is on Jeremiah’s prophecy. “A day will come,” says the Lord through Jeremiah, “when I will write my law upon their hearts. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD.” That day has come. When we are united to God, then we can look within ourselves, determine what our conscience is telling us, and know how to serve our God. We don’t need particular laws any more. We have the Lord.
A great example of the fulfillment of this prophecy was given by one of the saint’s whose feast we celebrate tomorrow, St. Joseph. Consider Joseph’s state of mind before the angel told him to take Mary to be his wife. He was about to marry a beautiful, young girl. He hoped he would have children with her. He was already an established tradesman. Now he would start his own family with Mary as its heart. And then he learned that Mary was pregnant. Joseph was devastated. He knew that the child was not his. Should he follow the written Law of Moses and reveal Mary’s pregnancy to the local synagogue leaders? They would have no choice but to put Mary to death, probably by stoning. Perhaps in another horrid way. Think of how women who are judged to be sinners in the Islamic world of our own day are treated. The people of Joseph’s time would not be gentle with Mary. Joseph knew that. He was convinced that he had been offended against, but within his heart he knew it would be wrong to have Mary put to death. Maybe the pregnancy was not her fault. Perhaps, she didn’t know what she was doing. It made no difference. Joseph was a just man. That meant that he had a relationship with God. And that relationship told him, that law within his heart told him that he could not expose Mary to the law. He would just send her away, to have the baby in the home of a far off relative where she and the child would spend the rest of their lives. It was only after Joseph chose to follow the law of the heart that the angel appeared to him in a dream and told him about the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
When we are united to God, then like St. Joseph we know what is right and what is wrong. We call that knowledge a certain conscience. There may not be a written law that says we have to look in on that difficult elderly neighbor, but the law of our heart tells us that God expects us to do just that. There may not be a written law that tells us that we should try to make peace with that estranged family member who has just returned home, that prodigal son or daughter who walked out on our Mom and Dad, brought them so much grief, and who now wants to be reunited with the family. There may not be a written law telling us how we should behave, but our hearts say that God wants us to welcome him or her home.
A number of years ago, a girl from Oregon moved here to begin college at USF. She had been in a Life Teen Program at home and attended our program as a college student, offering to help out with the high school people. One reason she left the West Coast to come to Florida was to end a bad relationship and seek, what she called “a new virginity.” She was only here a few weeks when she realized that she was pregnant. The people she was staying with tried to convince her to embrace a solution that she would regret the rest of her life and that would destroy the life within her. She was not going to do that. She wanted to go home, but she didn’t think she could tell her parents. She went to our Pregnancy Center. They helped her with pre-natal needs, directed her to a doctor, told her they would help in any way they could. She went to our Youth Minister, Bart, and then to me. Now there may not be a written law that says that we needed to care for her and the child within her, and get her back to her parents, but the law of God within our hearts told us that we have no choice but to do everything we could to help her. By the way, we got the money together to buy her a ticket home. When she called her parents to tell them about her situation they welcomed her home. She was over 18 and there was no law saying that they had to let her back into their home, no written law that is. But the law of the heart told them as it told us what needed to be done.
We Americans are so legalistic that we can easily let the law reduce us to limiting the choices we make to that which is required by the written law. We are better than that. The law that we need to follow is the law of God that is written within our hearts. We need to stay united to God and listen to our consciences.
I could tell you many stories about people who hid behind the law and hurt other people. I could also tell you many more stories of people, who like Joseph, were just, united to God, and chose to make what their hearts told them would be loving decisions.
All of us are concerned with teaching our faith to our children. Religious education is not enough. It is important, yes, but it barely touches the surface of what it means to follow the Lord. Yes, it is important that our children learn their lessons. But it is infinitely more important that we provide our children with experience after experience of our living our love for God. It is not just their minds or our minds that God wants. What God wants is their hearts. What God wants is our hearts.