Sunday, September 2, 2018

Year B Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut 4:1-2.6-8; Ps 15:2-5; James 1:17-18.21b-22.27; Mark 7:1-8.14-15.21.23

The end or purpose of God’s Law, known by Jews as the Torah, is to “love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deut 6:5) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Hence, the Torah itself was given to Israel, God’s chosen people, as the means to achieve this end. This is why, in our first reading from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are sternly warned against adding to or subtracting from the Torah. Truth be told, over the centuries, they both added to and subtracted from it.

The result of adding and subtracting was that many in Israel, including the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’s day, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, became very hung up on the minute details of the Law. For many observant Jews, adhering to the Torah meant obeying the 613 mitzvot. Mitzvot is a Hebrew word that means “words.” The 613 words, then, are rules, that is, prescriptions and proscriptions, dos and donts.

The scribes and Pharisees in our Gospel today criticized Jesus’s followers for eating without first ritually washing their hands. Lest we read back into the Gospel in an anachronistic way, it is important to point out that this ritual had nothing to do with hygiene- nothing was then known about germs and microbes. According to St Mark, the ritual of washing one’s hands up to the elbows before eating was a “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). Stated simply, not only is Jesus saying whether or not you wash your hands before eating has no bearing on whether you are righteous (to the delight of children everywhere), he contends that what you eat doesn’t matter either. In other words, eating non-kosher foods does not defile you. According to Jesus, what defiles are the long list of things he enumerates. These, he states in no uncertain terms, come from within, not from without.

The essence of Jesus’s criticism of the hand-washing ritual was that the scribes and Pharisees with whom he was disputing were substituting man-made rules for divine commandments. We need to always keep in mind, as truly observant Jews then and now certainly do, that the Torah was given as a means to the end of loving God and neighbor. God’s Law has no other purpose. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites. Hypokrites is a Greek word for an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. In this context, Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees who are criticizing his disciples that because they mistake the means for the end they are phonies, play actors, observing the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit and purpose.

Never once did Jesus denigrate the Torah. How could he? Who the Lord is critical of are those who add to and/or subtract from it. He is critical of those who seek to make the means the end, who think righteousness is simply a matter of rule-keeping, not love. Jesus always teaches from the heart of the Torah. The commandment to love God with your whole being is given in the Torah- Deuteronomy 6:5- as is the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself- Leviticus 19:18. What is sin after all if not my failure to love? That sin is a failure to love is indicated in the Act of Contrition, which we say after confessing our sins and before receiving absolution: “in choosing to do wrong and failing to good I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things.” We all know first-hand that it is easy to honor God with our lips while keeping our hearts far from him. A big part of what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Heaven knows, as Catholics we have plenty of rules: fasting one hour before receiving communion, observing Fridays as days of penance, abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays of Lent, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, coming to Mass each Sunday and on holy days, going to confession at least once a year, materially supporting the Church, etc. As disciples of Jesus, all of us should routinely practice the spiritual disciplines taught us by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Far from disparaging any of this, I think they are important enough to find out why we are obligated to do them and then to do them in the proper spirit, which means doing them in order to learn to love like Jesus loves.

In light of what’s recently been revealed recently, about which we have spoken the previous two Sundays, this Friday, 7 September, the first Friday of this new month, Bishop Oscar has called for a day of prayer, penance and reparation in all parishes and schools throughout our diocese. Apart from giving us the specific intention of penance, healing and reparation, our bishop has only asked of us what our pastor, Fr Rene, asks of us the first Friday of each month going back several years: to set aside a time on First Fridays for a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, to celebrate Benediction and assist at Mass. I think it is important to point out that this is not an obligation. It is not something you must do. You are free to participate or not. If not an obligation, this Friday certainly presents us with the opportunity to come together as a community formed by the Eucharist and together turn to the Lord, who is Mercy. Coming together around the Eucharist also gives us the chance to resist the temptation to divide into “us” and “them,” the “goodies” and the “baddies.” Christ became human, became our brother, became one of us in order to make of humanity only an us without a them. His means of doing this is the Church, which is made by the Eucharist.

Our reading from the Letter of St James challenges us not to just be hearers of God’s word but to be doers of it. To receive God’s word and not act on it, James tells us, is to deceive yourself. Much religion, I think we can safely say, is bad religion. Even Christianity can be twisted, distorted and put to evil use. Such forms of Christianity, of course, are not genuine. Too often we are content to worship a God of our own making, which is idolatry, the first thing the Ten Commandments forbid. By contrast, being a Christian means constantly having your understanding of God challenged and so deepened. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has challenged the Church repeatedly on this point.

True religion, James reminds us, demands that we care for the afflicted and keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” These are not two separate things; they are integrally related. Grasping that caring for the afflicted and keeping ourselves unstained by the world are inextricably linked enables us to do away with the false distinction between “compromising activities” and “pure realities.” Compromising activities are activities we must engage to some extent simply as a matter of being alive and human, things like “the family, the state, the individual body, psyche” (Rowan Williams The Wound of Knowledge, 11). “Pure realities,” on the other hand are those things held by people who adopt this kind of dualism as being “really real,” “the soul, the intelligible world,” etc (Ibid).

Christianity is easily co-opted by various kinds of reality-denying Gnosticism, which quickly turns into spiritual solipsism. When this happens, a person becomes completely concerned with something called individual holiness. If holiness consists of loving God and neighbor after the manner of Jesus, then it is impossible to attain holiness all on your own, without other people. After all, one person is no person. Proof of this is that God is a communion of persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Far from keeping our distance from the world, in order to remain unstained by it we must engage with the world precisely as Christians. Doing this requires a community, which is why we have a parish and why our parish is not merely some kind of spiritual fill-up station. Rather, being formed by the Eucharist, we strive to be an authentic community.

At the end of Mass, we are not sent forth to hideout until we gather together again next Sunday. Rather, we are sent forth to “glorify the Lord by our [lives]” (Roman Missal, sec. 144). We do this by living our daily circumstances through Christ, with Christ, in Christ and for Christ. We do this, in turn, by loving God with all that we are by loving our neighbor in all that we do.

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