Though the old Weston Priory song containing the haunting refrain, "Come back to me with all your heart; don't let fear keep us apart," was titled "Hosea," it could just as accurately have been called Micah, Isaiah or Jeremiah.

The goal and message of every prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures is to bring people back to Yahweh. Forming and building a relationship with God is at the heart of all faith.

Yet, no matter how deep our faith, we're always tempted to let our God-relationship slide into the background of our lives, replacing it with a slavish adherence to rules and regulations.

Many of us figure a relationship with a specific structure or institution is more secure, safer than a relationship with a God who is completely "other" from ourselves, and the institutions and structures we create.

Starting over

That's the situation Jeremiah faces in Sunday's first reading (Jeremiah 17:5-8). Scholars tell us that this pre-Babylonian Exile prophet has given up on the institution and structures of Judaism.

For centuries, Judaism had been leading the faithful in directions Yahweh didn't want them to go. Once the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem in the early years of the sixth century before Christ, Jeremiah is convinced Yahweh wants the Israelites to throw down their arms, surrender to their enemies, and be marched off into an exile which will effectively destroy the structures and institution that had led them away from Yahweh.

Jeremiah dreams that, in exile and with the externals of Judaism wiped out, the Chosen People will be forced to return to the most essential part of their faith: their relationship with Yahweh.

The prophet helps prepare them for their exile with the contrast he creates in this passage: "Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings...whose heart turns away from Yahweh....Blessed is the one who trusts in Yahweh, whose hope is Yahweh."

Luke imitates Jeremiah's contrast style in the Gospel (Luke 6:17,20-26). Like Jeremiah, he's giving his people a choice. Will they choose the joy and blessings which come from imitating Jesus' poverty, hunger, sadness and persecution, or will they pick the curses that come from their imitating the wealth, satisfaction, laughter and social status of His enemies?

Only those who have formed a deep relationship with Jesus will dare copy the lifestyle choices which brought Him a new life.

Making a choice

In a parallel way, Paul, writing almost 30 years before Luke, offers the Corinthian community the same choices (I Corinthians 15:12,16-20). But he goes about it in a different way. Some in his church have come to the conclusion they're not going to rise from the dead. Though they believe Jesus rose, they don't see how that applies to themselves.

Paul's only recourse is to return his readers to their primary relationship with the risen Jesus. According to his Christian belief, those who believe in Jesus become one with Jesus. To form a relationship with Jesus implies we identify with Jesus; we actually become "other Christs."

If Jesus dies, we die; if Jesus comes to life, we come to life. To believe Jesus rose from the dead but we won't means we're the "most pitiable people of all." Our faith really is "in vain."

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s demonstrated that structures and institutions can and must change. It also reminded us, like Sunday's three sacred authors, that our relationships with God and Jesus are at the heart of our faith, the force and reason behind any structural and institutional change.

(2/8/07)