(The following is from Pastor Dick Dahl)
Today we have readings from two books of the Bible we don’t usually hear from: Deuteronomy, one of the first five books of the Old Testament which the Jewish people call the Torah, the Law. The other is the letter of James, who was “known as “a brother of the Lord”, and became a leader in the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem before being put to death in 62 AD.
In the first reading Moses teaches Israel the statutes and decrees which God was giving them to observe. He noted that people of other nations would marvel at the good fortune of the Israelites to have a God so close that they could call upon him and to have statutes and decrees that were as just as the law being taught to them that day.
James, in turn, notes that every worthwhile gift and genuine benefit comes from God the Father….” If James had lived in a less patriarchal society, this would have been a good place for him to say, “from God the Mother” when he then speaks of God “who wishes to bring us to birth with a word spoken in truth.” He goes on to say, “Welcome this word that has taken root in you and has the power to save you. But don’t just listen to it. You must act on it.” How? Among other things, by looking after orphans and widows in their distress, in other words, the poor, the needy, the helpless.
Finally, in the reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus harshly criticizes the Scribes and Pharisees who took offense over his followers who had eaten without first washing their hands. Jesus said these religious leaders put more importance on their own dogmas about external observances than what is really God’s commandment, namely actions based on love, worship that comes from the heart.
When we see such a stark contrast between external observance and inner love of the heart laid before us so clearly, it’s easy to recognize which is more important. The Franciscan Father Richard Rohr says the ego prefers to be part of a moral achievement test in which we feel in control, versus surrendering to the “word spoken in truth” that James wrote about–the word that has the power to save us, namely that we are surrounded and immersed in God’s presence and unearned love.
I am reminded of a reference I made in a homily here a year and a half ago when I learned of the death of a friend and fellow Paulist Jerry Travers. In 1968 Jerry was interviewed as a young priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd in New York city. In this very Irish parish 20,000 parishoners filled nine Masses in the church and five more in the auditorium every Sunday. Yet in the interview Father Jerry said, “We can have our throats blessed 87 times, carry home wheelbarrows of palms, and get ashes 15 times. This doesn’t mean anything if we don’t follow the Gospel, the message of Christ loving our neighbors.
At that time in the 1960s Jerry confronted the animosity of parishoners who feared losing their homes and their jobs, as Puerto Ricans and Negroes (which was the acceptable designation at that time) started moving into their neighborhood. The devout Catholics of the parish were at home with their Rosary beads and novenas, but not with their neighbors of a different race and culture.
We can be blinded by following the law and engaging in religious practices but then failing to recognize and love Christ in those around us. This is especially true when they look different, act out of different cultural patterns, and speak differently from us. This is true when their entrance into our neighborhood, city or country strains social services, costs us more in taxes, threatens to take jobs, or just makes us feel uncomfortable.