Except in Eastertime the first reading at Mass each Sunday is from the Old Testament. Many of these readings are striking, others can be really puzzling. But their very use raises the question: why do we still read from the Old Testament anyway? From the Christian point of view, the Old Testament has done its job – it has led up to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. So why still read it?
The books of the old Testament record and interpret a long history. It is a long history of God’s dealings with human beings and it is a history of God’s initiatives in leading humankind forward. One of the characteristics of this interplay between God and human beings is that it has a direction to the future. It creates a religion different to those surrounding Israel all of whom believed in the returning cycle of nature and so were very much concerned about fertility. Israel’s relationship with its God was taking them to a future that they did not yet know. From the very beginnings of this relationship, this was true. At that beginning, God said to Abraham: “Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country that I will show you” (Genesis 12:2). Abraham was called into a future he did not know and had to trust God with his and his people’s future.
The interplay begun between God and Abraham continued throughout the history of the chosen people with all the various characters whose writings we read in the passages from the old testament. They were people very like ourselves who struggled to keep this dialogue going and who got caught up in all the daily affairs that are part of every human life. We see in their writings the whole range of human emotions – the good, the bad and the ugly – which we still find in us and around us. And so we find violence, war, fear, anger, manipulation as well as happiness, joy, fidelity, satisfaction and everything else that is part of human life. All this explains why we keep reading the old testament – we can find mirrored back to us in it all the things that are still around us. Within this human mix and mess, God works away with us and within us.
There is a dynamic at work in Israel and among us now. People can often be scandalised by all the war and violence in the books of the Old Testament but remember that is what the humankind that God is working with is like! What is significant in that regard is that Israel finds out by hard experience that the God they call on to help them win wars is no good at war!!! It is part of their discovery of what God is really like. Similarly, the experience of unanswered prayer leads them to go further to discover the ways of God and the fact that he does not pander to their every wish! This dynamic of being led further is constantly at work in the Old Testament and the New. It is leading into the deeper discovery of God and this of course reaches its highpoint in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth among us.
By Fr Frank O’Loughlin