Aug 29, 2015

22nd Sunday: Keeping up appearances

(Sunday Scripture - click on picture to the right.)

Deut 4: 1-2, 6-8
Jm 1: 17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mk 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There is a wonderful British comedy that was popular on Public Television a few years ago.  Unfortunately it isn’t broadcast anymore but you can still find past episodes on Netflix.  It was entitled “Keeping up appearances.” 

The main character of the show was an eccentric and snobbish woman named Hyacinth who was raised in a rather ordinary working class family and who lives with her long suffering husband name Richard who patiently puts up with her antics.  Hyancinth is determined to present herself as cultured and refined both in her language and especially in her outward appearance. Her famous “candle light suppers” and “bone china” for the upper crust that she would put on certain airs and push herself to outrageous situations pretending to be a woman of great privilege and highly cultured taste. It all made for great comedy as she demanded constantly that her last name of “Bucket” really be pronounced “Bouquet.”

Keeping up appearances was not only a perfect name for that series but it may indeed apply to our scriptures this Sunday. Our readings are about a misplaced emphasis on the law; the law of God and the law that we humans impose.  Life without law will be anarchy.  Life with too much law is oppressive and heavy.  The Pharisees in the Gospel this Sunday receive the harsh words of Jesus for their misplaced emphasis on external rituals that were imposed with as much importance as the law of Torah – the law of God.  They appeared to be righteous and obedient, ritually clean and pure but the truth was something like Hyacinth who spent so much time and energy on appearing to be something she wasn’t. And the more you try to convince others you are a certain way, the more you look out of place and somewhat ridiculous. 

So, the Pharisees, though they understood the value of law as a moral guide for life and that which helps to create order and balance in society, were emphasizing their outward show to the detriment of the deeper law which God has established for us to follow. They became hypocritical and their great sin was that they expected others to do the same. The main principle being that we do not gain salvation simply by appearing to be a certain way; by simply obeying laws and rituals. Jesus makes clear that it isn’t disobedience to oppressive laws which causes one to sin but a heart which is wounded by sin, out of which come great offenses.   

As our second reading from James reminds us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jm 1 27).  Law has its place indeed and we simply cannot do whatever we want.  But a law based in love that of God for us and we for him, is lived out in service to our brothers and sisters.  True moral teaching is rooted in the love of God and based in what we read in his commandments.    

Sometimes the problem with law is that we are quick to impose it on other people while we ignore it for ourselves.  We are quick to judge and easily find the negative in others.  We gossip about people’s faults while failing to look at our own.  We are more concerned with our appearance than we are with our moral integrity.  The Pharisees had become experts at this type of skill. 

But, Jesus’ own life is a model for us.  He pushed beyond artificial restrictions and reached out to the poor, the sinner, those considered unclean.  His own disciples, as we hear in the Gospel, paid little attention to simple purification rituals, and I’m sure were catching on to Jesus’ own example of emphasis on the higher law of love. Jesus inclusive ministry became a scandal for some and a joy for others. 

Yet, if we have the heart of the Gospel within us, we will find ourselves.  The law of God we follow changes us; turns our hearts and minds to God. We find a balance between the necessary freedom which the law allows but always rooted in the higher law of inclusive love for which Jesus lived, preached and died.  If we can live by that deeper moral code of love for God and love for our neighbor then we see law not as oppressive and restrictive but as that which guides us to the right freedom of compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. 

That internal law that God has written on our hearts is the moral principle which guides our choices in all things.  How we appear externally is less important that who I am. As Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah in reference to false pretense: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."  Then further confronted the Pharisees: "You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition. (Mk 7: 14-15). 

As we gather for Eucharist, Jesus comes to us in both spiritual and human ways; in Word and Sacrament and in the needs of others around us.  Our lives can be complete if we place our emphasis on Jesus’ own example given for us and remembered in each Mass – his self-sacrificing love offered to us in the Eucharist which calls us to be his presence to one another. 

God of might, giver of every good gift,
put into our hearts the love of your name,
so that, by deepening our sense of reverence,
you may nurture in us what is good
and, by your watchful care,
keep safe what you have nurtured. 

(Collect of Mass)