Religions which begin as systems to build relationships between people and God, and people and people always run the risk of later creating systems which actually replace such relationships.

Some of these faith-defeating systems can be centuries old, created within a few generations of the person who first inspired the faith which the religion purports to teach. That's why one of the six biblical ways to distinguish a real prophet from a fake propjet is to ask, "Does he or she return us to the roots of our faith?"

Real prophets take us back much farther than a few centuries. Those who minister as consciences of their people demand they return to and explore the faith which precedes even the systems developed to promote it. This is certainly what Yahweh expects Ezekiel to do (Ez 33: 7-9).

Back to basics

Through the centuries, Jewish religious and civil leaders had created a system of shrine and court prophets who delivered the "party line" to pious Israelites. But Ezekiel takes us back to the beginnings of Jewish faith by recounting his prophetic call.

"You, son of man," Yahweh proclaims, "I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me."

Ezekiel's faith springs from, and revolves around his relationship with Yahweh and Yahweh's people. He doesn't absolve himself from being the community's watchman just because priests and kings, centuries, ago, built a system which never mentions the warnings Yahweh demands.

One of the things which most excited Jesus' original followers is that He also transported them back to their faith roots, roots which we hear Paul stress in the second reading (Rom 13: 8-10). "Owe nothing to anyone," he writes, "except to love one another...,Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law."

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul explores how the Law of Moses relates to the faith which Jesus proclaimed and lived.

The Apostle argues that Abraham and Sarah, the first believers in Yahweh, lived at least five centuries before Moses was born. How, then, could following the Mosaic law be more important than the pristine faith which Jesus taught: giving oneself in love to God and one's neighbor? That's why Paul, like Jesus, calls people to return to their basics.


Matthew's Jesus believes so much in this concept of love of God and neighbor that He gives several implications of it in the Gospel (Mt 18: 15-20):

* First, the community, inspired by love, has an obligation to confront those who sin against its members. (But if we make the sinner's last state an excuse for the unchristian practice of "shunning," we're conveniently forgetting how lovingly Jesus relates to Gentiles and tax collectors.)

* Second, the whole loving community, like recognized teachers of the Mosaic Law, can "bind and loose" its members to specific interpretations of Jesus' Law. This insight is very important for the Jewish/Christian church for whom Matthew writes, since it's on the verge of turning away from those teachers. They now possess the power they once gave to others.

* Third, the faithful who dare follow their mentor back to the beginnings of faith should be able to discover the risen Jesus present and working in their "midst." Matthew will eventually teach in chapter 25 that this same risen Jesus is present and working in those least of His brothers and sisters whom we serve, but here He zeroes in on the believing community itself. Those who believe as Jesus believes become other Christs for those around them.

Those, like the prophets in our midst, who return to their faith roots always suffer in that endeavor. But, at the same time, they experience the deep life those roots offer. (09-05-02)