This post is adapted from an exegetical reflection on the first reading for the Feast of the Sacred Heart by Br. Leland Thorpe. Ever since the Oblates of the Virgin Mary were consecrated as a Congregation to the Sacred Heart in 1873, this feast day has had a special prominence in the Congregation’s life and piety.
“For you are a people holy to the Lord… It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors… Therefore, observe diligently the commandment… that I am commanding you today.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-11
These words of Moses are addressed to the people of Israel on the banks of the Jordan near the beginning of Deuteronomy. His audience is a new generation of Israel – these are the ones who were born in the wilderness while their parents wandered for forty years. It was their parents who witnessed the dramatic election and redemption from Egypt, and who were parties to the equally dramatic covenant institution at Mt. Sinai. This new generation is heir to the covenant, but they now need to be reminded of it.
Deuteronomy builds on this theme of remembering, and even in a certain sense renewing, the covenant of Mt. Sinai. Central to this remembrance is the question of identity: Who are these people that they should be in this covenant with God? On what basis have they been made partner in the covenant? This passage from Deuteronomy answers these questions: they have been chosen by God, plainly and simply. They are not wealthy, or powerful, or great in numbers, yet God has set His heart on them and taken them as His treasured possession. Israel’s entire identity is “the Beloved of God,” and its whole beatitude lies on receiving that identity and responding appropriately with the self-gift of obedience to His commandments.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses giving an authoritative commentary on the Law – if not a new law entirely – in the Sermon on the Mount. This portrayal means that we can use Deuteronomy to help us understand the significance of Our Lord’s words.
Among the Beatitudes we find listed two which are very closely related: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God” and “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” These beatitudes refer unmistakably to the anawim, the poor of God, to whom Jesus promises the earth and the Kingdom of Heaven. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI helps us to understand this promise: the land is more than a piece of territory or even a nation. It is a place where God’s chosen ones can freely live in obedience to His will, especially in offering Him right worship. The message of Deuteronomy shines clearly in Jesus’ words: God has set His heart on the poor, looking on them with favor, and promises them a kingdom.
The Church presents us with this passage on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, with good reason. In hearing this passage, we are reminded that we come to God poor, with nothing to offer to augment His glory. We are reminded that He has chosen us and set His Heart on us. Our entire identity is, “Beloved of God.” How shall we respond? Shall we follow Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light? If God so loved us, will we in turn love one another?