Sep 1, 2012

22nd Sunday: Unstained and undefiled

(James Tissot)
"Hear me all of you and understand!

Sunday Word:
Deut 4: 1-2, 6-8
James 1: 17-18, 21b-22, 27

Mk 7: 1-8. 14-15, 21-23

Doing the same thing over and over again may lead to impressive results. We may become quite successful, perhaps even proficient as in the skill of playing a musical instrument, ice skating, playing soccer, or cooking.  Perfecting a certain technique may take years of repetitive discipline until one day it all comes together!  Watching an Olympic athlete or a professional musician whose skill is near perfect makes a complex set of turns, stretches and dips or movements of the hand appear effortless. 

This Sunday our Scriptures invite us to consider the value of practice makes perfect but in regards to our life of faith.  The Book of Deuteronomy presents Moses in his role as prophet and teacher: “Now Israel, hear the statues and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you . . .”

Moses reminds the people why they followed the God who revealed himself to Moses.  Because he remained near to them, he destroyed their enemies, he cared for them, he heard their groaning and fears and responded with water, manna, and quail - the "bread from heaven."  The God of the Hebrews was certainly unique from the gods of other pagan people around them. Those gods were distant and unresponsive for there is no other god that can do for them what the true living God will do.

Therefore, Moses admonishes the people to mark carefully, without change, to observe, “. . . the commandments of the Lord, your God . . .” In doing so, they will be a “wise and intelligent people . . .” and an example of right living to all around them. This sacred Law of God demands of them a high moral character; a change of heart and mind and conformity to right relationship.

Human nature being what it is, though, it will take practice over time to reach understanding and to make these Laws a normal part of their life style. Yet, are we obedient for obedience sake or does God desire something more from us?  That is, do we obey by removing ourselves from others to remain undefiled or do we remove sin from our heart to serve the Lord more faithfully? That question is posed to Jesus.

The Pharisees with some scribes confront Jesus about his own disciples’ lack of obedience to the hygienic laws established before eating a meal. They, Jesus’ disciples, eat like the “common person, “like Gentiles not like Jews.  Law upon law had been established and the Pharisees created a religion of laws rather than a faith of the heart.  “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders . . .?,” they grill Jesus.

The view was essentially that Jews needed to remain somehow unique and different from others around them.  Such scrupulous meal rituals as we hear of in the Gospel today became a way to say, “We are not like you.” But our Lord makes it clear that a higher law is what changes us. 

“You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition . . .” Jesus criticizes the leaders.  It is what is inside a man/woman’s heart that needs to be changed.  Then, Jesus’ list of the fallen human “heart” is disturbing but true: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice deceit, licentiousness (decadence), envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly . . .” My, my how politically incorrect he sounds!

Obedience to the Law of God will cure the sickness of our souls.  It isn’t about outward appearance, about looking holy and good, about walking around with hands folded and eyes downcast, or about shaving and grooming, or dare I say a slavish following of liturgical rubrics which will make us acceptable before the Lord. This is not to say that we should go around looking like we just woke up from the nearest landfill or that our sacred liturgies should be sloppy, unprepared, or dull and uninspiring. It is about a higher law at work in our hearts that addresses our constant need for reform.

The moral for us in this day and age, it seems, is not much different than it was for the ancients. The human heart hasn’t changed much.  Anyone who may feel that unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, envy, or blasphemy are somehow passé needs to listen to the evening news or speak to any priest who has heard confessions.

The complexity of present day culture, speaking with many conflicting voices about freedom, individual rights, equality, gender identity, toleration is pulling all of us to question which “law” is the most applicable for today.  Is every choice or life style to be embraced? So we question, or at least we should, the confusion created.  The Church does as well as it has in every age of history – sometimes very effectively and sometimes on its knees in repentance.  

But the voices today are loud and more forceful due to modern means of communication.  The members reflect the culture of the time so we cannot help but bring the surrounding culture into our gatherings as well.  So, it seems to me, that accommodation is the key. 

When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 he suggested, “We open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” For a time afterwards it seemed that meant that much of the culture around should be embraced but today we have come to see that a more mature and discerning mind and heart was the intention of our late Holy Father and the Fathers of the Council itself.

So, the positions of the Church today that have become flaming social points around marriage, the sanctity of life, family planning, have challenged us to ask how much can be accommodated by we Christians, stilled called to be different from those around us in that we question and are called as well to follow the higher moral code which God has revealed to us. 

Do you feel that a discerning heart is still needed today or is the Church simply out of touch by not accommodating more to present day social changes?  Is the rejection of same-sex so called marriage, abortions rights, and artificial contraception a judgment upon others or an embrace of the Law of God in rejection of the sins of the heart?

When we come to gather for the Eucharist, what do I bring with me that is worthy for the Lord? St. James wisely admonishes us today to, “. . . keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Jesus speaks in the Gospel: “Hear me, all of you, and understand.”