2012-09-02, 22nd B, What Rules?

Homily 09-02-12
Twenty-second Sunday Ord, B
Dt 4:1-2, 6-8;  Ps 15:2-5; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

(Scriptures included after homily)

Ever ask the wrong question at the wrong time and feel like you’ve opened up the floodgates on yourself?  Hearing today’s Scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel, from our 21st century, American culture’s point of view, might make us wonder if Jesus was just in a really bad mood that day, having answered the Pharisees question so harshly!  It sounded like they asked a pretty straightforward question: ‘Why aren’t your disciples following the rules?’  And Mark even explained what those rules were all about, “tradition“.

But you see, the question has to be placed in the right context and in the right culture.  The Scripture scholars tell us that somewhere in fourth to fifth centuries, before Christ, the Jewish scribes began to expand and elaborate on the general moral principles described in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible that were handed down by Moses).

In a very demanding manner, those scribes developed thousands of new rules and regulations that governed every action and every possible situation in life.  And they tied the observance of all those rules to the favor or disfavor of God.  You see, it was exactly what Moses warned against in our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy,
when he said, “You shall not add to what I command you, nor subtract from it.”

As time went on, the original meaning of many of God’s Laws was lost.  For example, the cleansing of hands went from a moral principal of sanitation and good health, to a meaningless ritual show.  And the Pharisees and the scribes became the ‘vice squad,’ the enforcers of all those laws that Jesus called: ‘human tradition, and not God’s commandments.’

The Pharisees became so obsessed with enforcing those rules, that they totally forgot the reality of the human condition around them.  They forgot that compassion goes a lot farther than criticism; and that feeding a starving child is much more important than the perfection of cleansing rituals.

You see, in the context of a culture of poverty, in a somewhat oppressive religious state, the Pharisee’s question was really not, ‘just an innocent inquiry.’  It was one more, of their many pointed attacks on Jesus, that today may have sounded something more like this:  “If you’re so great, why don’t your people wash their hands?”  “If you’re so great, why do you pick grain and heal people on the Sabbath?”  “Why don’t you pay taxes?”  “Why do you associate with the riff-raff?”  “Who do you think you are?”  “You’re certainly not one of us!”  And praise God that He wasn’t!

So now, with a little better grasp of the contextual and cultural background, we find that Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question was really not that harsh after all.  Jesus very diplomatically mirrored back their own accusation.  But this time, it was done with Scriptural support.  And instead of referencing the authority of the Law as the Jewish Elders, Jesus clarified that the true Authority of the Law is God Himself.  And God is not found in meaningless rituals, but is right there in our own hearts.

Jesus said that it is not what we physically eat that defiles us (that makes cleanliness a spiritually discriminating act).  You see the Jews had another whole set of rules about clean and unclean foods that this statement not only voided, but by saying it, Jesus opened up the faith to another whole segment of the population, who did eat those foods (the Gentiles).  And many of their hearts were most likely (spiritually) cleaner than those of the Pharisees and the Scribes, even though they didn’t adhere to the Jewish physical cleansing rituals.

Sometimes we find that the ‘treasure’ is not in the minutia, but in the big picture.  And sometimes the ‘big picture’ is not about ritual actions, but about prayer.  And sometimes ‘prayer’ is not about words, but about the ‘pure love’ in our own hearts!

You see, Jesus didn’t really have an issue with following rules and rituals.  The issue was knowing what their place is supposed to be in the order of things (of Life).  Things like human dignity, common sense, basic rights and the necessities of life should always come first, while the rules and rituals are used to keep those necessities in order and functioning smoothly.  We have many rules and rituals in our own lives, both in Church and in our civil lives.  And we must always keep both in their proper function and order.  If civil laws encroach-on or violate those basic necessities, or our human dignity, then like Jesus, we need to take a stand against moral injustice.  And we do that, just as Jesus did, with appropriate wisdom and documented references!

This whole scene between Jesus and the Pharisees and Scribes, then, prompts us to probe our own motives about our faith.

1. Are we putting that quarter in the basket because we have to?
Or are we Giving because we really want to support something we truly love by freely offering our time and treasure?

2. Are we coming up to Communion because we’d be embarrassed to break up the flow of the line, by not coming up if we’re spiritually unprepared?
Or are we truly excited about Receiving Jesus so intimately within ourselves, that we’ve cleansed our hearts to make room for Him there?

3. Are we so focused on leaving the Mass that we’re not even there in mind or spirit?
Or would Staying those extra five minutes really make that much of a difference?

You know what?  To tell the truth, I was on the front side of all three of those questions myself at one time.  And ever so slowly, I discovered that it really does make a difference!  And the difference is absolutely LIFE-CHANGING!

A wise man once said,

Give like there’s no tomorrow.
Receive like it’s your very first Christmas.
– And Stay till they lock you out.

Then stay some more!

jmp 09-02-12

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Scripture Readings for the Mass of 09-02-12
22nd Sunday Ordinary Time B

First Reading: Dt 4:1-2, 6-8

Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes 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.  In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. 

Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’  For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?  Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5

R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart and slanders not with his tongue.

R.
Who harms not his fellow man, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised, while he honors those who fear the LORD.

R.
Who lends not his money at usury and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things shall never be disturbed.

R.

Second Reading: Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.  He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.

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.

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

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.

For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.  And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves.  And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.

So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.  “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.  All these evils come from within and they defile.”

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