Many of you know that recently I have been working on losing weight and getting healthy. That’s been going on since January, and it’s starting to see some good results. And the recipe, as any doctor or nutritionist will tell you, is easy: eat less and be more active. Easier said than done, of course. But I’ve been following the doctrines and precepts of my diet for the better part of this year. Just recently, I knew that it was having an effect on me. One day, I had some free time and I thought about how nice it would be to have a nap. My very next thought was, “Oh, but I should go out and have a good long walk first!” I also have started to think about food differently: some things while momentarily yummy aren’t all that satisfying, and they’re just going to cost me more time in the gym. As I’ve noticed myself beginning to think that way, I realized that lifestyle changes had happened in me, and that was good.
I say all that not to pat myself on the back, but because I think it is a parallel to what the Church is teaching us in today’s Liturgy of the Word. This year I’ve learned that following the rules of the diet was nice, but making lifestyle changes is going to give me real results. Similarly, the readings today teach us that following the rules of our religion is nice, but it’s not until we let our faith take hold of our lives that we are going to see real results in our walk with the Lord.
In our first reading today, Moses is exhorting the people to carefully observe the laws that God has set before them. This wasn’t supposed to be some kind of scrupulous, daunting observance, but rather a response to God’s love and care for them. They had been led lovingly through the desert and were about to take possession of the Promised Land, the land promised by God to their ancestors. And so as they obey the law and take possession of the promise, they give witness to the nations to the greatness of their God and the wisdom of the people.
But as time went on, the observance of these laws got a bit messed up. People had given up true observance of the law and the love of God, and got caught up in the appearances that came from rigid observance of the rules of the law. They missed the spirit of the law, and even used the law as justification to do whatever it was they wanted to do. Our readings give us two responses to that issue today.
The first response is the response Jesus gives to it in today’s Gospel. Here he has yet another altercation with the scribes and Pharisees. They begin to quiz him about his disciples’ habit of not washing their hands before they eat. Now before all you parents start siding with the Pharisees, they weren’t talking about cleaning dirt off their hands before a meal. They were talking about a ritual custom of washing, not only hands, but also jugs and other things. These rituals probably began as something the priests did before offering sacrifice, much like the hand washing that is done in the Eucharistic Liturgy before the Eucharistic Prayer. But in the case of the Jews, this practice seems to have become something that ended up obliging everyone, and the Pharisees were keen to see that it was done faithfully by everyone, along with the other 612 laws they were required to practice!
So what Jesus was criticizing here was empty, meaningless ritual. Non-observance of these meaningless things, he says, do not make a person impure. Those demanding that people obey these human laws are themselves disobeying the law of God, Jesus says. So he illustrates the problem by making the point that real impurity comes from a much more fickle source: the human heart. The real problem is that people don’t purify their hearts. Because from an impure heart comes all sorts of foul things: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils,” Jesus says, “come from within and they defile.”
The second response comes in our second reading from the letter of Saint James. Saint James attacks people’s rigid observance of the law at the expense of the poor. Those who dwell on the mere observance of the law are missing its point: and that is that we are to love as God loves. So if one wishes to be pure in one’s observance of religion, one should be a doer of the world and not just a hearer. Pure religion involves caring for widows and orphans and all those who have been marginalized, and to keep from being corrupted by the world and its influences.
I think James underscores Jesus’ point that missing a miniscule point of the law does not make a person unclean or irreligious. Instead, missing the whole spirit of the law and becoming corrupted by the world is what does that to a person. We have to be honest, I think, and acknowledge that this kind of issue was not limited just to the people of Israel: it can be our issue too. We too have to admit that we are guilty of that horrifying list of sins that Jesus spells out for us today. And the way we’ve gotten there is by not giving our faith a chance to really sink in, to become a lifestyle change like in my diet, to take hold of our hearts.
There’s a positive and negative way of getting at that, and it’s the simple formula of the spiritual life: do good and avoid evil. Avoiding evil can be tough, because there are so many traps out there, so many obstacles to the spiritual life, so many occasions for sin. Maybe it means we need to stop watching so much television. Or spending too much time on the internet. Perhaps some relationships we have are not healthy and need to be ended. Maybe we’ve been paying attention to the wrong advice. We generally have to be on guard as to what goes into us, knowing that, as the Act of Contrition says, we need to avoid whatever leads us to sin. So, whatever it is that needs to be rooted out, it needs to go.
The opportunities to do good are just as numerous as those to do evil. We just have to perhaps respond to more of these opportunities. Perhaps we need to pray more. Or to read the Scriptures or other spiritual books more. Maybe it would be good to spend more time with our families, to pray together, or watch a good movie together, even to have more meals together. Or maybe it wouldn’t hurt to do a bit more apostolic service: shopping for the food pantry, teaching a religious education class, helping with a parish event, looking in on a sick neighbor. I know those things can be hard to do in our busy lives, but they’re never going to be a waste of time or effort.
As we continue our prayer this morning, maybe we can all reflect on our response to the life of faith. If we can make a resolution to change one small thing and bring that as part of our offering of gifts this morning, who knows if our whole life of faith won’t change in a positive way! Today the Psalmist is very clear about the fact that working on interiorizing our faith every day comes with a reward: The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.