Moses knew the mind and heart, so to speak, of Him Who said:
I, the LORD, am their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that I, the LORD, their God, might dwell among them. (Exodus 29:46)
Do not defile the land in which you live and in the midst of which I dwell; for I am the LORD Who dwells in the midst of the Israelites.” (Numbers 35:34)
Therefore he took great care to make clear to the People of Israel the true nature of the sublime privilege that was theirs:
What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord our God is to us!
He will deliver this land to you because He wills, He chooses, He wants, to dwell among you, and to be known as the LORD Who dwells in the midst of the Israelites.
Faced with such an unheard of (then, as now) privilege Moses encouraged them to always call upon Him in their needs for they were as yet still unsure and relatively untried as one people and, seeking to encourage them, Moses used language they could more easily understand: ‘in all your needs, at all times, you can call upon Him for help’:
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?
Moreover, being a rude and simple people only recently formed after being rescued from debasing slavery, they were unable to truly appreciate what God was intending to do for them and with them; and therefore, that they might sooner rather than later be able to hold up their heads with confidence among the surrounding peoples, Moses went on to emphasize what, again, they could readily understand:
What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today? Observe it carefully for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations who will hear of these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
Notice the priority given by Moses in recognition of Israel’s supreme blessing and privilege:
What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD our God is to us! From that blessing and on the basis of that privilege alone would flow Israel’s right to confidence before God and among the nations. The relationship between God and His Chosen People would be largely determined by His People learning to delight in and humbly respond to His Presence among them. However, as history shows, Israel remembered most of all, not Moses’ first words: What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord our God is to us; but those more temporarily advantageous and humanly understandable words concerning God’s help in their times of need and the superiority of their laws and customs. Broadly speaking, their repeated abuse of God’s help throughout the periods when first their Judges were trying to establish a homeland for them and subsequently when their kings were trying to establish an independent realm, led to their being exiled by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians; while their pride in their laws and customs became less an expression of worship and love for their God than a protective shield against the nations around and a source of disdain and even contempt for the cultures and practices of both the Greeks and -- ultimately and most decisively – of the Romans, which led to their total destruction as a unified and relatively independent nation and culture.
Let us now turn our attention to Jesus in His confrontations with the Pharisees of which we heard in the Gospel reading. At that time the politically powerful Sadducees were, by the grace of Rome, the authorities in charge of the internationally renowned Temple worship in Jerusalem; but it was the Pharisees who were the popular spiritual leaders in Israel and most proud to be recognized as zealous in their observance of the Law. However, the Law came down to them along with a multitude of oral traditions from their chosen and recognized elders, with the result that their concern for the Law did not lead them to God so much as it gradually made them ever more and more mindful of what their elders had said about the Law. They communed more with their elders in pride of spirit than with the God of their fathers in humility of heart:
Jesus responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honours 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.
Jesus then went on to show the absolute importance of that inner turning to and communing with God; for only God, thus welcomed and worshipped in men’s hearts, can purify them and cleanse them:
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.
The Law might regulate external behaviour, but only communion with God in the heart can purify from inner defilement. Indeed, even for Our Blessed Lady who, as St. Luke (2:19) tells us:
Kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart,
such heart-felt loving communion with God had to be perfected before she could follow her Son’s Ascension into heavenly glory: she received the Gift of the Holy Spirit, to glorify her within and without in preparation for her Assumption into heaven to be with her beloved Son.
For us Catholics, likewise, obedience to the Church, regular reception of the sacraments, rosaries and novenas, will produce little where the heart is not open to cherish and respond to God’s Holy Spirit in one’s daily living. The Holy Spirit of Love is God’s invisible Gift to each of His children in Jesus; and only a personal response to His love -- the spiritual response of a watchful and attentive mind and a longing and loving heart -- can provide a fitting gift in return.
There are, however, some of God’s children and Jesus’ disciple who, in the practice of their faith, are afflicted by an ever-present and guardedly-secret feeling of being burdened, even suffocated, by recommendations, regulations, prescriptions, that seem to accuse and threaten them with failings here, faults there; everywhere sins and failings which -- even when small -- are said to be significant and important because they could lead to others more threatening and serious. It is a sickness that robs their continued and courageous religious observance of any spontaneous joy. Where, for such sufferers, is the freedom of which St. Paul spoke so ardently:
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery? (Galatians 5:1)
How can it be that, when the Christian experience for some ‘want-to-be-devout Catholics can seem to be both unfree and oppressive, St. John also can write:
No one who is begotten by God commits sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot sin because he is begotten by God. (1 John 3:9)
Such an anomaly is due to that against which Moses advised the People of Israel, that about which Jesus accused the Pharisees: that which for today’s more humble and sincere Catholic sufferers, might be described as ‘taking one’s eye off the ball’. For we are not meant to struggle alone along a way that Jesus is said to have walked; we are called rather to allow the Spirit of Jesus to guide us along that ‘Jesus Way’ which He alone most sublimely knows and most lovingly chooses personally for us, even indeed -- at times of special difficulty -- carrying us along part of that way. We are not meant to be ever looking out for sins and occasions of sin: rather we need to keep our minds on the God Who is, really and truly, our Father and wants to show Himself to us as such; we should fix our hearts on Jesus Who died for love of us before rising for us, and Who desires above all now as the true vine to have His branches bring forth their fruit of love for His and our Father ; we must try to set our hopes on the Holy Spirit; given as God’s divine Gift to us Who will – if we begin, trustfully to recognize and respond to His urgings and inspirations -- form us secretly but sublimely in the likeness of Jesus.
People of God, we are not called to be rich in worldly consolations and satisfactions: we are believers whose faith has to become strong enough to fill us with a supreme desire for that of which Jesus has spoken and for which He has given us His promise. We are not individuals confident in our own ability and strength: we are disciples who find our comfort and strength in the Spirit Jesus has given us and the hope which He inspires within us. We are not mature and experienced denizens of this world; we are, above all, children who know most surely that there is a Father Who has already spoken to and called us, and Who is ever drawing us to Jesus; a Father Whom Jesus has assured us we can, in Him, call ‘Our Father’, a Father Whose heavenly kingdom will ultimately be our eternal home.
We are a people called to gratitude for God’s innumerable blessings and gifts, not to complaisance in our own achievements, called to confidence in His goodness not to pride in our self-sufficiency, called to aspire to and hope for the supreme joy of His loving presence, not to selfish anxiety and fear for our present freedom from trouble and eternal safety.
Dear People of God learn in prayer to look for and praise God’s wondrous beauty; re-discover and constantly remember His many blessings to you personally over the years; and never be surprised at His enduring and ever-erupting goodness in your lives.