by Father Mike Stubbs
What makes a nation great?
Is it military might? Is it economic prosperity? Or, perhaps the number of gold medals its athletes win at the Olympic games?
Sunday’s first reading — Dt 4:1-2, 6-8 — suggests a different measure of greatness. It imagines the peoples of the earth exclaiming: “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” And what inspires this praise? It is Israel’s closeness to God and its observance of God’s law: “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
The Book of Deuteronomy presents a system of law for the people of Israel. It is meant to reflect God’s will. In that law, the two ideals of justice and mercy join together. As Psalm 85:11 poetically puts it, “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.”
It is one thing to have a law. It is quite another to observe it. That is why the reading exhorts the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may life.” It is only through observance of the law that the people will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence.
The Book of Deuteronomy proposes observance of God’s law as the way for Israel to attain greatness. It leaves as an open question whether or not Israel will achieve that goal. Deuteronomy also assumes that, upon Israel arriving at a certain measure of wisdom and intelligence through its observance of the law, the other nations of the world will recognize its greatness in that regard.
That may be questionable. Is it not more likely that nations will continue to admire those who can defend themselves through military force, those who grow wealthy and prosperous? That has been the case in the past. Why should it not continue?
Perhaps it requires a certain amount of wisdom and intelligence for a nation to appreciate those qualities in another. It takes one to know one. Those nations that praise Israel for its wisdom and intelligence in observing God’s law will
also have found wisdom and intelligence themselves. They will have set their goals on something more than military might and economic prosperity.
One thing more: Doing God’s will, acting with justice, is the way to arrive at wisdom and intelligence, the way to find greatness. But it is an ongoing journey. The Book of Deuteronomy proposes that for Israel, but it is a goal for all nations of the earth.