My friends, this 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time gives us a selection of readings that calls us to ponder the place of law versus love in our lives. Moses, James, and Mark, speaking for our brother Jesus, are asking, encouraging, and even imploring at times, for the people, to consider the laws given—yes, but to not get stuck there. Laws are guides, which must always be laid upon our hearts, to get their full meaning, their full import—in my view, this is what our brother, Jesus did.
Mark gives us Jesus’ words, who is actually quoting Isaiah, in this regard. “These people honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees and us, by extension, to see that what makes us, “unfit” or “unacceptable” (which, by the way, we never are in God’s eyes) doesn’t come from the rituals we do or don’t do—evil, but just as much, good, and the capability for either, reside in our hearts and just as selfishness, injustice, and all other evils come from our hearts, so do, mercy, understanding, kindness and all-abiding love.
It may be easy for us to incriminate the Pharisees today, as did Jesus, saying, “They just don’t get it!” But, my friends, how about us? Are we any better?
Most of us here are old enough to remember pre-Vatican II times when our lives were pretty well ordered by fasting, abstinence from meat, obligations for Mass on Sundays and holydays. It might be good to reflect back on these times and truthfully answer whether those practices and laws were done out of love, or more so, out of fear—fear that I might not go to heaven when I die.
I have memories of being at weddings, complete with Mass on Saturdays and people asking the priest if this would “count” for their Sunday obligation? When I was ordained, there were people on both sides of my family who couldn’t bring themselves to attend because, “Father said they shouldn’t.” Even the bishop scolded me for “confusing” the people. Both these examples are about following the law, not much else.
Some might say that in pre-Vatican II times it was easier, “to be good” –we knew if we did, 1-2-3, we were a, “shoe-in” for eternal reward. After Vatican II, we were more encouraged to do the “loving thing,” whether or not there was a law demanding it, or at least this is what my read of the Scriptures told me. Vatican II encouraged us to dig into the Scriptures more, which previously hadn’t been encouraged, and see what in fact, Jesus did—what in fact, the powers that were operative in his time, crucified him for.
When all is said and done; it was because he advocated for the “widows and orphans,” that James talks about in the 2nd reading today, that those in Jesus’ time, with power to make a difference, would afford justice to these abused and forsaken ones. Not sharing with these lowly ones, of course added to their power through accumulated wealth, so they weren’t about to change.
Jesus, many times, had to stand alone, as he sought justice for those who needed it. We, my friends, if we choose to follow our brother can really expect no different as we advocate for the “widows and orphans” of our day.
And who are these present-day “widows and orphans?” They are those in our midst without homes, not enough food, immigrants seeking asylum at our borders who can’t make it past the “red tape.” They are those suffering today as a result of climate change—too much rain, not enough rain—resulting in wild fires and crop loss, more powerful and devasting storms, and the list goes on to include those in this country whose government was formed to recognize all as equal and free—with justice for all, who still today carry the burden of racism, sexism and every other “ism” that seeks to divide rather than unite us as a people.
Yet, the Scriptures today give us hope. Moses tells the people, and again; we are meant to see ourselves by extension, that their God is very close to them and has given them the commandments to help them live well.
James tells the people and us that, we should, “humbly welcome the Word planted in [us] because it has power to save [us].” But he continues, don’t just listen, but act on the Word!
In today’s Gospel, it is precisely, failure to act on the Word that Jesus is getting after the Pharisees about. They are only, “scratching the surface” with all their ritual acts of cleanliness, “on the outside” –he wants them to look inside to see if the actions that are coming from within are, likewise, “clean.”
My friends, there is always that tendency for any of us to just follow, “the letter” of the law, instead of the “heart” of the law. The pre-Vatican II laws told us to get ourselves to Mass every Sunday and that apparently was enough to be within the law. Vatican II said, “Yes, come to Mass—receive the Body and Blood of Christ, but then remember your call to, “be bread” for the world. Or, as I shared in an earlier homily, from a black sister priest within Roman Catholic Women Priests, “Do Jesus, just do Jesus!”
It is always easier to stay, on the surface, it’s less messy there—but going a little deeper opens up so many more possibilities for being all that we can be—our best selves.
Perhaps then, a way to tie everything together would be to say that living, “out of our heads” may help us to do the sensible—perhaps even, “right thing,” as it is determined by law; but it seems to me that our brother Jesus demonstrated quite clearly throughout his earthly life that it is always better to do, “the loving thing” and if we get “crucified” for that, we will at least know, that we were part of the solution, instead of part of the problem, plus we will be in some very good company. Amen? Amen!