There are times when sitting down to do my daily reading and writing these reflections can feel like a chore. However, there are days like today when we encounter rich chapters from Guardini. Chapters three and four of Part 3 of The Lord focus primarily on “The Law,” but also on how those under the Law, the Jews, received Jesus compared to those who were not under the Law, the pagans. He starts by setting the context in which the Law was received. If we are ever to understand the purpose of the Law and its role in salvation history, we must attempt to understand what led to its coming.
The chosen people of God who came after Abraham were meant to live under the terms of the covenant set forth with him: “loyalty for loyalty,” as Guardini puts it. Remain faithful to God, and God’s blessings will be upon you. This, however, does not happen. The people make their way to Egypt, under Joseph, where they prosper so much that Egypt determines them to be a threat. They are therefore put to slavery. At the same time, perhaps due to a laziness and pride arising from a long period of prosperity, they have hardened themselves to God. “We have only to see how they treated the man sent by God, Moses. Thus begins a new chapter in sacred history. The possibility of serving God in free faith is gradually lost.” A new covenant is struck through Moses, a covenant of Law.
Even just a casual reading through of Leviticus shows this Law to be incredibly demanding. It seems impossible for man to obey everything within it all the time. And indeed, it is impossible (without divine help). That’s the point. The people have completely lost their consciousness of God. The Law’s intense focus on ritual and cult in every single aspect of human life is there to force the people to be conscious of God in everything they do. Even when doing things as simple as eating dinner, they are meant to feel the touch of God. This “stiff-necked” people are to gradually realize the state of things—they are in need of God. “Thus slowly, the Messianic people was to be stripped of its illusions and prepared for the fullness of time and the advent of the Messiah.”
But the people fail again. Instead of allowing the Law of God to master them, they instead attempt to find ways to master it. They turned it into a measuring stick. The scribes and the Pharisees used the Law to judge every minute detail of people’s lives, and condemn them for it, while holding themselves to be the masters, and thus attempting to make themselves equal to God. Guardini calls it a “protective fence of orthodox rules and regulations” rather than the transformative guide it was meant to be. The people had become so arrogant, so determined to declare themselves the gatekeepers of salvation and holiness, that the very Law God had given to them was instead used to put God to death.
Jesus came to the Jews. He makes that quite clear. They are the chosen people of God, and the offer of salvation was to be made first of all to them. Their prideful perversion of the Law caused them to reject him outright. But what’s interesting is when we look at those who were not under the Law. What of the pagans?
We see Jesus have encounters with pagans a few times in the Gospels. In Mark 7:24-30, he encounters a Phoenician woman who “begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” He responds harshly. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, I am here for Israel, not for the Gentiles. But she understands his meaning, saying “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus is clearly moved by this, as he then immediately drove out the demon. Even though she was not of the people of God, he saw her faith, and he responded.
The second example Guardini gives is the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. He asks for help for his servant. When Jesus offers to return to the centurion’s home to heal him, the centurion utters the words we are so very familiar with: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” He realizes that Jesus commands power over all things, and he recognizes his own lowly state in contrast. Jesus is so moved as to proclaim: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“Jesus loved the pagans. Humanly speaking one might even say that he longed for them; obedience alone (that is, obedience to the Father’s will) held him within the close boundaries of his mission.”
Jesus himself says it plainly. Those under the Law have blinded themselves to the Messiah who has come. The Gentiles are far more prepared to receive him, and will do so eventually. But Jesus remains in Israel, rather than venturing out to Rome or Assyria or Greece, where he would surely be better received. For the time being, Jesus is still there for the Jews, and his obedience to the Father compels him to maintain that course.
“God’s word cannot be shelved to wait until we have leisure for it. It is a living, challenging call, worker of destinies, and makes its own time. The hour in which the word is offered to the people of the covenant draws to a close; soon it will pass to others. The result is not only that those who have refused to hear no longer have the opportunity of doing so, but they no longer can hear; they have closed their hearts.”
This is not only true of the keepers of the Law who so completely rejected Christ, but it’s true of us as well. Christ has made his call: “Follow me.” We are to respond, and our non-response is a response in itself—a spiritual apathy which hardens us to the possibility of responding positively. If our ears do not hear, the word will pass to ears that will.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.