Doing the Word of God, Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), September 3, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
22nd Sunday of OT, Year B
September 3, 2006
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 this Church today 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.”

2) There obviously must have been several people in his day who used to like to come to listen to the word of God without putting it into practice. But why did St. James say that they were lying to themselves? I think the reason is because if they were thinking that it was enough in one’s relationship with God merely to show up on the Christian Sabbath and listen to the Scriptures, they were deceived, because God didn’t give us Sacred Scripture 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 the word of God without desiring to have it change our lives, to put it into action, to give full rein to its power to save us, then God tells us that we, like Christians in St. James’ day, are doubly-deceived. We’re deceived both about the purpose and the power of the word of God as well as about our dramatic need for it.

3) 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 hearts are far from me.” He was essentially stating that the Scribes and Pharisees were deluding 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. The Pharisees and the Scribes would have appeared to those at the time as extraordinarily religious people. They went to the synagogue every Saturday. They prayed at least three times a day. They used to walk to Jerusalem a few times 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! The 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! They were in fact not religious at all, because in their hearts they were murderers instead of worshippers.

4) 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, doers of the word rather than idle listeners. 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, whether our heart really wants to do what the Lord asks. In the Gospel, Jesus draws the distinction between true disciples and 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 God, in his word, or in someone or omething else.

5) 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. Think about this for a moment: they rejoiced because God gave them the commandments, for they saw them not as fences to hem people in, but signpost pointing the way to true freedom, real love and lasting happiness. At first, the Israelites recognized this. 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.

a. The Scribes and the Pharisees Jesus confronts in the Gospel were famous for adding to it. They added hundreds of dietary and other prescriptions, which over time, began to become in practice more important than the true heart of the commandments. God had not commanded the scrupulous washing of hands before meals, yet, with the passage of years, that became for them essential for religious observance. The same thing happened with many of the regulations they added about the Sabbath. Using the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said, “In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

b. But the Scribes and Pharisees also tried to subtract from God’s law, by excluding from it all their evil impulses as long as their deeds were exteriorly fine. Jesus pointed out that their hearts were in fact rotten, because from their hearts flowed all types of thoughts and actions that they were trying to subtract from the law: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly.” St. James was accusing his readers of the same type of subtraction, for he said that they were fulfilling the law simply by listening to it, while at the same type, neglecting orphans and widows, not controlling their tongues, allowing themselves to be stained by the world.

6) The same dangers of adding to or subtracting from God’s law are present to believers today, who by these ways — and not just by neglecting the word altogether —fail to be “doers of the Word.” We can begin with those who subtract from the law. I think they fall into two categories:

a. 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 gift of their sexuality or the sacrament of marriage. Or such a person may be faithful to prayer and personal piety, but neglect the “widows and orphans”, the needy, all around. Or someone may be very generous to the support of the Church but try to pretend as if he or she does not have to be “doers of the word” relative to the defense of our unborn brothers and sisters. 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. If the Lord says something to us and we fail to believe it and to try to implement it, then it should be obvious to us we’re only giving him lip service and our hearts are indeed far from him.

b. The second type of subtractor from the law is perhaps even more common today. These are those who are concerned with fulfilling only the “minimal obligations” of the faith. They come to Mass, but want it over as soon as possible. They ask how late they can arrive and have Mass still “count.” They put something in the basket, but nothing really in accord with the generosity and blessings God has given them. They make an effort to avoid serious sins, but don’t really fight to win against sin, by coming to confession to ask for God’s forgiveness and his help so that they can overcome their evil desires and the deeds to which they may lead. Such people, in sum, are those who think they are doing “enough” for God, who are satisfied with being “good” rather than striving to be holy, who would be content with a D+ on the final exam of life, as long as they pass. Their hearts do not really treasure God and his law and his love above everything else. Their hearts are, simply-stated, divided and their competing treasures subtract their hearts from being fully with the Lord. Sadly, these people will never experience the joy God wants to give them in this world, because, as St. Augustine famously said, our hearts will remain restless until they rest in God. Jesus was never satisfied with doing the minimum. Anyone truly in love with another never accepts doing as little as possible or less than what one can. This weekend is a chance for those who might be subtracting from God’s law to examine their consciences about where their hearts are, about whether they’re really loving God and treasuring his law, and to ask for God’s help.

7) Moses also warns against those who add to the law. Although these people are perhaps less numerous today than those who subtract from the law, they do exist and are more common than we think. They are often among the most outwardly devout. Like with the Pharisees and the Scribes in the Gospel, however, their religious practices, rather than making them holy, most often make them proud and judgmental. These people generally try to make their own religious practices — be it their customs, charities, or particular devotions — obligatory on every one else. They have a great distrust of freedom, thinking it almost a “near occasion of sin,” and hence live by a set of thousands of little “rules,” or “do’s and don’ts” that they begin to value as much as any of the commandments. They’ll have very firm ideas about how others should dress, or what they should watch on television or listen to on the radio. Sadly, these people really do not 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. This weekend is a privileged occasion for people who add to the law to realize that word of God is perfect, and sufficient and to ask God’s help to come back to the heart of the law, which is the heart of the divine lawgiver.

8 ) The Lord calls all of us today to worship him with our lives and not just with our lips, to do his word rather than merely listen to it and let it pass through the other ear. If we are doers of the word, then each week the word we hear will change our lives because we will immediately apply it to our lives. The great litmus test for us to determine whether we’re idle listeners is to ask how last week’s readings changed our lives. If there was no noticeable difference — or especially, if we can’t even remember what were last weekend’s readings! — then we’re simply not attentive listeners and doers of God’s word. God wants us to change that. Jesus himself said that his family members, his real brothers and sisters, are those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21). We are called like our mother and His, who herself heard the word of God and obeyed it (11:28 ), to treasure that word in our heart and to give it our flesh, so that we become living commentaries of it for the whole world to read. As we prepare to receive the word-made-flesh at this Mass, we ask Jesus, who calls us to be doers of the word like he was, to give us the help he knows we need to accomplish it. If we respond to those graces, then we will realize the truth of today’s responsorial psalm — “The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord” — not just in this life but forever.