The Gospel is more than the history of Jesus. It is an invitation to live according to its values, and to believe with a heart surrendered to the Lord. Such faith rests on a generosity of spirit that reaches beyond mere conformity.
In like manner, the Law of the Old Testament was never understood simply as external observance. Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy Moses understood the values that underpinned the law as the gift of a loving God to his people. “And indeed, what great nation is there that has its god so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? And what great nation is there that has laws and customs to match this whole law that I put before you today?”
Moses insisted both on fidelity to the law and a willingness to enter into its spirit. Thus nothing was to be added to or taken from the Law. Equally, the law was to centre our lives on God, demanding our whole heart, mind and strength.
Only when faith has surrendered our hearts to God can we begin to live the values of the Gospel. Without such faith, the Gospel becomes an imposition. Imperceptibly it becomes an outward show, a conformity that conceals lukewarm hearts. Such was the attitude that Jesus frequently challenged in the Scribes and Pharisees. They claimed the moral high ground by criticising the least external infringement of ritual regulations. Thus they challenged Jesus concerning his disciples, who ate without washing and returned from the market place without ritual cleansing.
In response, Jesus went to the very heart of the law, restating the words of the prophet Jeremiah from centuries before: “This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me.”
When Jesus blessed the pure in heart, he was calling us to an integrity of heart and action. He pointed out that “nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean. It is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge.” For sinners, there will always be a disparity between heart and action. Only by God’s forgiveness are hearts purified, and actions become the expression of his presence.
St James laid down the path to such purification: “Accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls. Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of the Father, is this: coming to the help of widows and orphans and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”