What is it that you have brought with you to Mass today? That, I think, is the real question our readings are asking us. What’s at issue is what it takes to be a follower of God, a true disciple.
For the Israelites to whom Moses was speaking in our first reading, it was scrupulous observance of all of the 613 laws in the written and oral tradition of their religion. But as Moses was exhorting them, this rather daunting observance wasn’t seen as particularly burdensome so much as it was 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 to 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 disciple’s 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. It is not missing mere ritual cleansings that presents the problem. The real problem is not purifying the heart. 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 St. James. St. James attacks the 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 spurious point of the law does not make a person unclean or irreligious. Instead, missing the whole point of the law and becoming corrupted by the world is what does that to a person. We do have to be honest, I think, and acknowledge that this kind of issue was not limited just to the people of Israel, but instead to admit that it can be our issue too. We too have to admit that we are guilty that horrifying list of sins that Jesus spells out for us today. And the way we’ve gotten there is by putting ourselves in harm’s way.
The Catechism tells us, “The sixth beatitude proclaims, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ ‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness … There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith.” (CCC, 2518) This, I think, is what Jesus was getting at. If we would be really clean, and not just ritually so, then we would do well to purify our selves from the inside out, and not the other way around. Pure hearts would avoid all the evils Jesus lists, and then some.
The task before us is that of purifying our hearts, so that we may rid ourselves of the source of all these evil and vile things that can so easily come forth from us. What does that mean? Well, it’s probably different for every person. Maybe some of us 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. This is what the Church fathers and mothers have called “chastity of the eyes”: being 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.
Then too, we have to put more of the positive stuff into our lives. 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. I know those things can be hard to do, but they’re never a waste of time or effort.
The point is that we need to do whatever it takes to purify our hearts, and the task is most urgent. We need to root out the sources of evil thoughts and replace them with beautiful thoughts. Unchastity and adultery need to be replaced with faithfulness. Theft and murder with respect for property and above all, life. We need to do away with greed, malice, envy and deceit and replace them with honesty and justice. Root out everything that leads to licentiousness, arrogance and folly and replace them with encouragement and right relationships with others. And above all let there be no more blasphemy, that we may make way for true faith. Every source of vice has to be eliminated in our lives so that we can practice virtue. There is only so much room in us, and if it’s all full of vice, there’s no room for virtue. That’s a little simplistic, but there is truth to it. We must cleanse ourselves from the inside out, and become a people marked by purity of heart. This exercise is one that is tied to a promise for us: those who purify their hearts, the beatitude tells us, will truly see God. The Church teaches us that the goal of all of our lives is to become saints, and this, brothers and sisters in Christ, is how we do it.
What Jesus is saying to us is quite simple: we have to clear away the obstructions in our lives so that we can live as authentic disciples. Today’s Liturgy of the Word shows us how to do that. The Christian disciple strives always to live with a pure heart. I started the homily today with a question: “what is it you have brought with you to Mass today?” Praise God if it is something virtuous, pray to God for help casting it out if is not.