Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
22st Sunday in OT, Year B
September 3, 2000
Dt 4:1-2,6-8; Jas 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mk 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
(1) Saint James challenges every one of us here in the Church right now in the same way he challenged the readers of his letter over 1900 years ago. After we have just listened to the word of God in Sacred Scripture, the apostle tells us: “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you.” And then he gives us the criterion to help us to determine if we really have welcomed it: “Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves.” There obviously must have been several people in his day who liked to use to come to listen to the word of God without putting it into practice. But why did he say that they were deceiving themselves? Because if they were thinking that it was enough merely to show up on Sunday to hear the Scriptures — whether to impress others, or because it consoled them, or because they thought that that was their minimal obligation to keep holy the Sabbath day — they were deceived, because God didn’t give us Sacred Scripture because he wanted to win any literary awards, or because he wanted to entertain us, but because he wanted to change our lives. And if we come to hear Sacred Scripture without putting it into action, without acting on it, without its changing our lives, then God tells us that we, like the people in St. James’ day, are deceived.
(2) Jesus says something similar in today’s Gospel. Referring to the Pharisees and the Scribes, he said, “This people pays me lip service, but their heart is far from me.” He was essentially saying that the Scribes and Pharisees were, like James’ disciples later, deceiving themselves, paying mere “lip service” to the word of God and not really putting it into action. To everyone during their time, the Pharisees and the Scribes would have been considered extraordinarily religious people. They went to the synagogue every Saturday. They prayed at least three times a day. They kept the major Jewish feasts like Passover at the Temple in Jerusalem. They washed before every meal. They fasted routinely. They only ate kosher meat. They wore special clothes. They gave ten percent of their income each year to Temple. And yet in all of this, Jesus says remarkably, “This people pays me lip service, but their heart is far from me.” And he was right. These people who did all of these religious deeds were also the ones who ended up conspiring to kill Jesus. Their hearts were indeed far from him. All of their deeds were basically a sham, as Jesus says, “lip service.” Despite all of their so-called religious deeds, they were not in fact not religious at all, because in their hearts they were murderers instead of worshippers.
(3) And so today, the Church gives us these readings so that we ourselves might be able to reflect on whether we are true worshippers, rather than those who just give Jesus lip service. It basically thrusts these readings in our faces to give us the opportunity to see if we really are putting the word of God into action in our lives, or whether we’re in fact deceived that “everything’s just fine” in our relationship with God by the mere fact that we show up to Mass on the weekend, put a couple of dollars in the envelope, light a few candles, etc. Jesus ultimately challenges us to determine today if we really are his disciples, if we really are followers of God, if our hearts are really set on him or if it just appears that way. So the first order of business today is to determine what is the nature of the true disciple.
(4) Jesus draws the clear distinction between his true disciples and those he calls hypocrites not on the basis of external behavior but on what is found in the “deep recesses of the heart,” on the basis of what’s inside of us. Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount that where our treasure is, there will our heart be as well. And so we have to ask where our treasure is. In the first reading, we see where Moses’ and the faithful Israelites’ treasure was: in the observance of God’s commandments. Moses says, “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” They treasured God’s commandments. In other words, they didn’t just keep them, but they treasured them, they loved them, they looked at them as one of God’s greatest gifts. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and the Scribes had lost this reverence for the commandments, this gift of God to help them know and love God and know and love themselves, but instead they began to look at them as the 1001 things they had “to do” to be just in relationship with God. Violating Moses’ instructions not to add or subtract anything from what God himself had given them, they added many dietary and other prescriptions, which over time, began to become more important than the true heart of the commandments; and in the process, they subtracted the crucial importance of our interior dispositions. As long as they did certain actions, they considered themselves just, regardless of where their heart was.
(4) Jesus said they were wrong and brought the law back to its essence. He said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” And he fulfilled the law by returning it to its genuine purpose, a law of love, and love certainly involves our hearts. Listen to Jesus change the importance from merely externally keeping the commandments to keeping them interiorly. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus was saying it’s not enough simply not to kill someone, but if one hates others — rather than loves them — that person is violating the commandment. Again Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It wasn’t enough for God simply not to go to bed with someone else’s spouse, but there also had to be that inner motivation of love for someone who is married to another rather than lust. It wasn’t as if Jesus was saying that the commandments were not important; he was saying they were incredibly important, but that they had to be kept both from the outside and from the inside. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
(5) And so Jesus takes us back to the heart of the commandments, which are all meant to teach us how to love, in justice, mercy and faith. And in doing so he made the commandments very simple to understand and returned them to their being a true gift for all of his disciples including us. You remember the famous episode when a lawyer, to try to trick Jesus, asked him which is the greatest commandment of the law. (This wasn’t a simple question, because there were 613 commandments in what we call today the Old Testament!) Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then he added something that is very important for us: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, on this double commandment of love all of the commandments are based. Every single commandment is meant to help us to learn how to love!
(6) This is an amazing reality that so many people miss. Oftentimes we’re brought up to look at the commandments as a great burden rather than as a means to help us to learn how to achieve the fullness of human life, which is found in love. Many times we’re brought up to resent the commandments like many of us resent speed limits on the highway — as restrictions of our “freedom” rather than as means to help us truly become free, to truly become who we are, free to love with the true inner joy of Jesus. The commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day is not meant to restrict our freedom on how we can plan our weekend schedule, but rather is to help us become free by worshipping the God who made us, and prevent our becoming slaves to work or to ourselves. The commandment not to commit adultery is not meant to restrict our freedom with someone else’s attractive spouse, but to help us not become a slave to lust or someone capable of destroying someone else’s marriage. The commandment not to lie is not meant to restrict our freedom of speech, but rather is meant to prevent our becoming prisoners to falsity, so that we might be free always to speak the truth in love. Every commandment is meant to help us to love in truth, to love God, to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. The commandments are like warning signs on the edge of a cliff, saying “Danger!” to those who go beyond them. The point of such a sign is not primarily to restrict where someone can walk, to restrict someone’s freedom, but rather to prevent one’s wandering into dangerous territory and getting hurt. Anyone is free to wander beyond such a sign, but if they start to fall off the cliff, they are no longer free not to fall, and they get seriously injured. And so, like people who care for others enough to put up some danger signs, so God, who loves us and made us and knows us inside and out, gave us the commandments in a certain sense as boundaries, as warning signs, saying “Danger!,” if you go beyond these, you’ll end up hurting yourselves and others rather than loving them. They are hence a great gift, which is exactly what Moses realized. To keep the commandments as Jesus wants us to, to act on the word received through them, then, means not merely to go through the motions, but to keep the spirit of the commandments as well, to be grateful for them — for they are great acts of love from God — and to grow into more loving human beings through them.
(7) Now probably everyone in this Church today, starting with me, if we’re humble enough to admit it, could confess here, “Well, I haven’t always kept even the letter of the commandments themselves, not to mention the interior spirit of them.” There are time in each of our lives when we have just gone through the motions, when all we’ve done is give the impression that we’re keeping the commandments and living the Catholic faith, when inside we knew we really were not doing such a good job. This brings me to the second point of today’s homily. If Jesus says in today’s Gospel that it is that which comes from the inside that makes a person impure — and he lists several of the evil thoughts that can come from inside: fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy and arrogance — we have to ask what can we do when we find that we indeed have had such evil desires within. How can our insides be cleaned? Jesus had once said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” Is there anything we can do when we find our insides dirty?
(8) Thanks be to God there is! There is a way we can clean the inside, or rather, that God can clean our insides from these desires and sins. It is through the sacrament of confession. Jesus came to call sinners and hence he established in his Church from the very beginning the means by which the sinners he calls can in fact be cleaned by him of their sins and to grow in grace and in love. He said to Peter and all of the Apostles after he had risen from the dead and conquered sin, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And priests today, through the sacrament of ordination which traces itself hand-on-head all the way back to Jesus’ ordination of the first bishops — the apostles — in the Upper Room, still continue to carry out that mission in the person of Christ. And this is the only ordinary means by which Jesus told us our insides could be cleaned and certainly the only means Jesus ever gave us by which we could be certain that he had indeed cleaned our insides.
(9) That being said, it is obvious to everyone that there has been a marked decrease in the practice of sacramental confession over the past few decades. It is one of the great triumphs of the devil in our time, to get people and sometimes priests as well to take this sacrament for granted. I have a seminary classmate who is now a priest in the midwest. He began his assignment a couple of months ago just like I did here at Espirito Santo. He’s very funny and hardworking. After the first month or so, his pastor asked him what his impressions were of St. Mary’s. He replied, “Monsignor, this is the most amazing parish I’ve ever seen or been a part of.” The pastor, obviously happy at this reaction, said, “What do you find so amazing about it?” My friend replied, “I just find it absolutely incredible that no parishioners ever sin here!” The pastor quickly got the point my friend was making, not that no one was sinning in the parish, but that no one was really coming to confession.
(10) And this is a genuine crisis, which gets right to heart of the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees about the difference between a true disciple and a hypocrite. You remember Jesus’ short parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The Pharisee, in other words, because he was fulfilling all of the external aspects of Judaism thought that he wasn’t a sinner, bragging to the Lord that he wasn’t like other people, thieves, adulterers or publicans. Jesus didn’t praise him though, but praised the publican, not because he was a sinner per se, but because he realized he was a sinner and was humbly coming to God to say he was sorry and receive his mercy and forgiveness. Jesus said at the end of this episode, “I tell you, the tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(11) It’s the same way with us. Jesus came to call sinners, not the self-righteous. And all of us are sinners. We shouldn’t be too proud to admit it. The good news, the Gospel, in all of this is that Jesus can forgive our sins, he can clean out our insides, but it first means that we have to admit that we’re sinners, examine our consciences, and come to Jesus in the person of the priest in the sacrament of confession. And we should never be afraid to come to confession. Jesus says that heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 righteous persons who have no need to repent. In confession, God runs out to welcome back each of us just as the father of the prodigal son ran out to welcome him back with open arms, rejoicing that his son who was dead has been brought fully back to life. This is the joy with which God welcomes one of his sons or daughters in the sacrament of confession. The great thing about the cleaning that Jesus gives us in the sacrament is that he not only makes us clean through his grace of the sins we’ve committed, but he also strengthens us to fight sin in the future. It’s kind of like a protective “wax coat” you put on your car after you’ve washed it. So the regular practice of confession can not only clean us but keep us clean. Oftentime Catholics ask how often people should go to confession. Practicing Catholics should go to confession as soon as possible whenever they’ve committed any serious sin and, when they’re not aware of serious sins, about once a month. Every Catholic has to go at least once a year, but we shouldn’t make the minimum the maximum. The sacrament of confession is a great gift in which we meet the merciful Jesus who cleans our insides and makes them stronger. We need to rediscover this gift urgenty and never take it for granted.
(12) “Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves.” So St. James says to all of us today. Jesus calls us to give him more than lip service. He calls us to act on the word we receive from him, to treat the gift of his commandments as a real means by which we can grow in love and in imitation of him, and to come to him, whenever we violate those words, to confess our sins and receive the forgiveness only he can give in the only ordinary way he established for doing so. As we get ready to welcome Him down upon this altar today, let us concentrate especially on the gift of his forgiveness which we express in every Mass — “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,” “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” “This is the cup of my blood, … which will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” Jesus shed his blood on the Cross to forgive our sins and make it possible for us to love as he loves. What a great gift! What a great mystery! And so we can finish by going one step further than Moses? “What people could possibly have a God that loves us this much?”