In the first reading from Deuteronomy today Moses tells the people to “Fear the Lord.” The reading goes on to state that if you keep all the statutes and commandments of God you will be blessed with long life. In essence, what we hear is known as the “law of retribution.” The idea is if you obey all the commandments and live good moral lives, God will take care of you, that no bad things will happen to you. If you do not obey, bad things will happen to you. This idea runs through a good share of the Old Testament.
While I always advise people to obey the commandments, I believe the law of retribution idea has been adopted due to the wrong understanding of God’s love. Jesus, God incarnate, has shown us how God really cares for us. I’m sure you know good, solid, faithful churchgoers who have had bad things happen to them or their family; they have faced some sort of tragic event in spite of them being God-fearing. The Book of Job is likely the best-known Old Testament example of this situation. In the Book of Job, he loses everything in a very short time, and then his friends come to console him and question him on what sin he has committed that God would cause such suffering for Job. We, the readers of the book, know that Job is a good man, but his friends do not, and they are sure Job has done something to bring about this tragedy. Eventually, Job has enough of these friends and does a bit of venting toward God. God answers Job; stating that he (Job) doesn’t know everything, that he doesn’t understand why things turned out this way. Job then humbly submits to God’s chastisement, acknowledging his smallness compared to God. God never tells Job why these terrible things happened to him and the reader is left to conclude that God is all-powerful and in control, that we are not God and sometimes we will not understand why bad things happen.
This challenge to the law of retribution is an important aspect of our faith development. Many of us may still live our lives with the law of retribution as our understanding of God. I challenge you to read Mark’s Gospel passage with Jesus’ teaching in mind. Jesus quotes the passage from Deuteronomy but takes the next step; love of neighbor. Perhaps if we truly understand the love of neighbor we will see that God doesn’t punish others for sins committed, rather bad things happen to good people for reasons we may never understand here on earth. We will face judgment one day, standing before God to give an account of our lives. God’s justice and mercy will be evident on that day, but we, through the choices we make in our lives, decide if we will live with God eternally. If we love our neighbor as Jesus teaches, we will be living God-like lives, because God is love. That is what Jesus is teaching us today.