Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary time (Year B)
(Deut. 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark: 7:1-8, 1
Our readings today are centred upon what one might call the art of living in the Church. We are shown the good things God gives us and does for us, and also how mankind – even those who are religious -- can distort and disfigure, those blessings. In the words of Fr. Faber, it can happen that: “We make His love too narrow, by false limits of our own; and we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.”
In the first and second readings we were reminded of the great blessings God bestowed, first of all, on Israel, and, subsequently upon the whole of mankind, both Jews and Gentiles:
Observe carefully what I command you, for thus you will 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.’
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 first-fruits of His creatures. … Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.
We should recall that, in the first place, the Law given to the Israelites in the desert had come from God, it was not something the People of Israel had managed to produce of and for themselves; and likewise, the land they were about to enter, would not be won by their own might or valour, but would, likewise, itself be a gift from God. That is why Moses told them:
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, that you may live and enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord is giving you.
For us too, the Faith that we have received is not of human origin nor does it propose to us merely earthly aspirations. This was made abundantly clear for us Catholics and all true Christians by St. Peter when -- in response to these words of Jesus:
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life (John 6:63-64)
he showed -- under inspiration by the Father as Jesus Himself declared –whole-hearted gratitude and wondrous appreciation by answering (Jn. 6:68-70):
Master, You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Christ, the Holy One of God.
Therefore we must cling firmly to the teaching of the Faith: not only by reverencing it in our words, but also, and supremely – as St. James insists -- by practicing it in our daily living. And to that end we must, above all else, strive to truly recognize and love, understand and proclaim, Jesus enshrined in the Faith and Sacraments which God has so graciously bestowed upon us in Mother Church:
This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.
Although such intentions may seem clear and indisputable, nevertheless they can prove difficult to carry out because, at times, our minds: so slow to comprehend, our imaginations: so full of self-love and fear, and our emotions: so blind and imperious, will tempt us to depart – even though perhaps only slightly here and just a little there -- from our approved purpose and follow their urgent promptings. And though we may resist their attractions, nevertheless, their recurrence and unruliness can be wearisome and make it difficult for us to grow and come to our personal fulfilment in the Faith we acknowledge as both true and God-given.
Such difficulties, of course, are due to the fact that the Faith has been given us in order to change us, from what – who -- we are, into what – who -- God wants us to become. The Faith has been given us to re-form us: no longer in accordance with our own personal preferences, worldly desires and aspirations, but after the pattern, and according to the will, of Him Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, preparing a place for us to live there with Him for all eternity.
Moreover, in addition to such difficulties which arise from our very nature and are therefore the common experience of all disciples of Jesus, there are other difficulties we experience that spring not so much from our common human nature as from our own personal character and that of those with whom we have personal dealings: perhaps difficulties with others who are in positions of influence and authority, as in our Gospel passage:
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?"
To which words, Jesus answered most vigorously, saying:
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. And He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.”
The traditions of the elders to which the Pharisees and Scribes were so devoted were originally practiced -- and subsequently handed down -- as a means of helping and protecting true devotion among the people of Israel. And there were, undoubtedly, not a few in Israel who had profited, and would continue to profit, from their observance. The trouble was, however, that the zeal of the Pharisees and Scribes for such traditions and for the letter of the Law led them, at times, to disregard or even reject God’s commands and His broader spiritual teaching given through the Prophets and in the liturgical worship of Israel. Moreover, this excessive and misplaced zeal of the Pharisees and Scribes pushed them so far as to assert or desire that everyone in Israel should be bound by their traditions. This amounted, Jesus said as He quoted the prophet Isaiah, to them:
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
In that condemnation you can recognize how zealous Jesus was for the honour of God: men’s commandments were in no way to be compared with doctrines established on the unique authority, and expressing the sublime wisdom and ultimate goodness, of God Himself.
Now, In Mother Church there are many in positions of authority that entitle, and at times require, them to give advice, guidance and even instruction to the People of God. Such guidance and instruction – because the authority behind it stems from learning, experience, and above all, from the acknowledged and invoked guidance of God’s promised grace – can require obedience at times, and always merits respect and thoughtful attention. No one can rightly disdain or totally disregarded such teaching.
However, we must always realize that we have been set free by Jesus Christ; free, that is, to serve God, as living members of the Body of Christ in response to the guidance of His Holy Spirit living and working within us; and that no human guides can ever be allowed to cut us off from that freedom to respond personally to God making Himself known to us in our daily experience of life and prayer, so long as we truly remain in Jesus by keeping His commands and following His teaching handed down to us in Mother Church’s Gospel proclamation. St. Paul makes this absolutely clear:
Let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, the world or life or death, the present or the future: all belongs to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
As we go through life, striving to listen ever more carefully to God and follow Him ever more closely, we are always advancing to what is -- for us – new and largely unknown territory so to speak. Therefore it is indeed both humanly good and spiritually necessary that we should have the help of guidance from Mother Church, for on her alone does Jesus bestow the fullness of His Spirit, and for her alone does the Spirit appropriately recall all that Jesus taught and did. Nevertheless, after prayerful listening to God whispering in our heart and to our conscience, and with abiding respect for the teaching of and our communion in Mother Church, it is up to each of us, personally, to decide finally which way to go, because such responsible commitment is the hall-mark of a personal relationship with God Who wills to be intimately known and Personally loved by us in our life of faith; it is the glory of a Christian which we should not yield, and certainly never abandon, to another.
Jesus once (Matthew 10:19-21) declared to His disciples:
When they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
Jesus might have said, ‘the Spirit of My Father will guide you’, but no, He actually said, ‘the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you’ will help you. As it were, obliterating Himself Jesus shows us how closely He wants His disciples to be united to, one with, His Father, and it is for that end He gives us His Spirit at baptism and renews His Spirit within us at every Holy Communion. Oneness with the Father, in Jesus, by the Spirit, that is the culmination of all Christian life and holiness in Mother Church.
However, never at any stage in our life can we presume that we have heard, understood, and responded aright without regularly checking, as we proceed further, that we are, indeed, not only within the parameters of the Faith, but also walking in the direction of, and in a comforting conformity with, the life-thrust of her who is both the unique Bride of Christ and also our own Mother. And this constant longing for, and looking to, God; this unceasing watchfulness for the motions of His Spirit within us; this abiding awareness of personal weakness and ignorance together with an ever growing awareness of and reliance upon God’s goodness to us in Mother Church; all these attitudes and experiences gradually build up an ever deeper confidence and abiding joy in Mother Church as the Bride of Christ, and an ever more humbling and grateful experience and awareness of the presence and of the goodness of God in our lives.
The Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God: the things which God has prepared for those who love Him; things which God has revealed to us through His Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)A