Sunday, March 14, 2021

A mother's covenant

Propers for the fourth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent

What's the difference between a contract and a covenant?

It's easy to get bogged down in legal terms here, especially in a day and age in which everything we do is accompanied by a list of terms and conditions which we have to sign. Even accepting cookies requires a statement of consent. 

In many ways there is little difference as they produce more or less the same effect: an agreement between two parties.

The real difference between contract and covenant lies in how it affects the relationship between two parties. A contract exists only as a legal entity. It consists of an offer, the acceptance of that offer and the considerations of the implications of that offer. If the terms in the contract are met then there is nothing beyond it.

A covenant sets the context of a contract. A marriage may be legally expressed in terms of the contract but those terms carry with them the relationship between husband and wife with all the emotional details, the love, the kisses, the arguments, the better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness and health. The covenant is the stage on which the contract plays out.

And this is where Sarah and Hagar cone in.


St Paul uses these two mothers to illustrate the difference between the ways which we approach God's covenant.

Hagar represents the covenant of the Law. Everything is expressed in terms of a contract, the "thou shalt"s and the "thou shalt not"s. For the Pharisees, the Law is everything and any meaningful relationship with God is pushed to one side in order to fulfill what the Law says. But, when the Law is fulfilled there is nothing left. It is done and dusted. When the Law is not fulfilled then there is sin and punishment and sanction and condemnation. The Law can do nothing about the effects of sin. All it does is say what sin is.


Sarah represents the covenant in which the Law is set as an expression of God's love for His people and how He desires a relationship with His people. He gives us His blood of the New Covenant in order to drink into our bodies His life and love. In Him the Law means something - a contract that we love Him and our neighbour in order to deepen that relationship and rid ourselves of the evil that threatens our very existence.

Notice, it is God who starts the covenant. In each case, it is God who makes the offer, sets the terms and allows us to accept or reject those terms. We cannot begin to do what is good without first knowing what good is. And we cannot know what good is without God first showing us what it is by showing us Himself. This is the grace He gives us in a covenant which we didn't ask for.


You often hear the petulant teenager shout, "I didn't ask to be born!" This is true. We have a covenant put upon us by just being born. We have a covenant with our mothers simply by their pregnancy with us. They have a duty to see that pregnancy to the end. We have a duty to honour them and look after them in their old age. A mother's covenant is very powerful.

God's covenant is more powerful still for it is His Will not only that we come into being but that we should continue to be. But this covenant is expressed through Mother Sarah rather than Mother Hagar. We may not ask for this covenant but the benefits that it gives us are more than we can ever dream. 

In this covenant we are loved, we are sought, we mean something, we have a value beyond our wildest imaginings. And the contract of this covenant is written upon the Cross on which God is crucified and which we receive in the Sacrifice of the Mass through our membership of Mother Church.

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