Doing the Word, Not Adding or Subtracting From It, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), August 31, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
22nd Sunday of OT, Year B
August 31, 2003
Deut 4:1-2,6-8; James 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; otherwise he wouldn’t have written his letter in such a way. But why did he say that they were lying to themselves? Because if they were thinking that it was enough in one’s relationship with God merely to show up on the Christian sabbath to listen to the Scriptures, 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 living a lie.

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.” The Lord was essentially saying that the Scribes and Pharisees were deceiving themselves, only seeming to serve the Lord while their hearts and their actions were doing something else. This must have come as a shock to his listeners. 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 used to walk to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the major Jewish feasts like Passover at the Temple. 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, whether our heart really wants to do what the Lord asks. In the Gospel, Jesus draws the distinction between true disciples and those he calls hypocrites on the basis of what is found in the “deep recesses of the heart,” 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. With tremendous pride, 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. They didn’t just keep them, but they loved them and looked at them as one of God’s greatest gifts. God’s commandments are not fences to hem people in, but signpost pointing the way to true and lasting happiness. The Israelites at first recognized this.

4) But over the course of time, the followers of God began to pervert God’s law in the two ways Moses indicated: by trying to add to it or subtract from it. The Scribes and the Pharisees Jesus confronts in the Gospel tried to add to it. They added hundreds of dietary and other prescriptions, which over time, began to become more important than the true heart of the commandments. God had not commanded the scrupulous washing of hands before meals, yet, over time, that became more important than the actual commandments of the Lord. Using the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said, “In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” St. James’ audience is a good example of those who subtracted from the law by not becoming “doers” of the law, neglecting orphans and widows, not controlling their tongues, allowing themselves to be stained by the world.

5) The same dangers of adding or subtracting to God’s law are present to believers today. There are two common types of people who subtract from the law. The first is the person who picks and chooses which commandments to follow. Such a person may be exemplary in the following of some aspect of the law — for example, in doing charitable work — but then exempts himself or herself perhaps from keeping holy the Lord’s day, or from following the Lord’s commandments concerning the sacrament of marriage. Or we see other people — like, shamefully, some of our Catholic public figures — who keep the 3rd commandment, but then don’t try to stop the killing of innocent life in the womb. The Lord calls us not to be “selective listeners” of his Word, but to trust in everything he says as the path to our true happiness and salvation. The second type of subtractor from the law is perhaps even more common today. It is the one who is concerned with only fulfilling the “minimal obligations” of the faith. These are ones whose intention is to do the bare minimum with their bodies, but whose hearts are often far from what the Lord wants. They come to Mass, but want it over as soon as possible. They put something in the basket, but nothing in accord with the generosity and blessings God has given them. They’ll make an effort to avoid serious sins, but they won’t break themselves getting rid of sin, because they don’t want to be considered a “fanatic.” Such people are those who act as if they’ll be satisfied if they get a D+ on the final exam of life, as long as they pass. Sadly, they never experience the joy God wants to give them here in this world. There’s a clear reason for this. People who concentrate on doing the minimum live with God on the periphery of their lives. They don’t realize that as long as they keep God on the fringe, He will always be a threat, because He will also be trying to move into the center. Jesus was never satisfied with doing the minimum. Anyone truly in love with another never accepts doing as little as possible. This weekend is a chance for those who might be subtracting from God’s law to examine their consciences about where their hearts are, and whether they’re really loving God and treasuring his law.

6) Moses also warns against those who add to the law. These people, too, are more common than we think. They are often among the most outwardly devout. But like the Pharisees and the Scribes in the Gospel, rather than make them holier, these practices often make them more proud and more judgmental. These people are among those who try to make their own particular devotions obligatory on the rest of us. These are the ones who seem to make it very hard for people to come back to the Church, because for them the Catholic faith is a 1000 do’s and don’ts, rather than a loving fidelity with Christ. They can start to look down on others who are not seeming to do as much as they think they are doing in following the Lord. Sadly, these people really don’t experience joy either, because the good things that they’re doing are not helping them grow in love, are not helping them make their hearts more and more like Christ. The whole law is supposed to make them more loving, more like Christ, who desires mercy more than sacrifice and love of all as he loves them. For any of those who add to the law, this weekend is one in which they will receive the graces, if they humbly receive them, to come back to the heart of the law, which is the heart of the divine lawgiver.

7) Who, then, is our model of the one who neither adds nor subtracts, who gives God the service of the heart and not just the lips, who acts on God’s word? Jesus himself presented us that model in the Gospel. When a woman cried out from the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the breasts which nursed thee!,” Jesus said, “Blessed, rather, is she who heard the word of God and put it into practice.” He praised his mother, not because of her physical relationship to him, but because she conceived him in faith even before she conceived him in her womb. She heard God’s word and acted on it. She listened so attentively to that word, she treasured it so much in her contemplative heart, that that Word actually took her flesh and dwelled among us. Mary shows us the way. We, too, are called to listen to God’s word, to cherish it in our hearts, to put it into practice immediately, so that it might actually on our flesh and blood and becomes part of our very being. “The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” The angel greeted Mary, “The Lord is with you,” because she acted according to God’s word and lived in God’s presence. As we prepare to receive the Word of God made flesh in the Eucharist, we ask him to strengthen us so that we might be hear his word and justly act in accordance with it, so that we might live in his presence in this world and forever in heaven.

Praised be Jesus Christ!