22nd Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8; James 1:17–18, 21–22, 27; Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
The Rabbi Prisoner The heart of religion is not ritual and law, but love of God and neighbor.
William Barclay, the Scottish theologian, tells the story about an old rabbi who was in a Roman prison. He was on a minimal ration of food and water. It was just enough for him to survive.
As time passed, the rabbi grew weaker and weaker. Finally it became necessary to call a doctor. The old man’s problem was diagnosed as dehydration.
The doctor’s report confused prison officials. They couldn’t understand how the rabbi could be dehydrated. Although his daily ration of drinking water was minimal, it was adequate.
The guards were told to watch the old man closely to see what he was doing with his water.
It was then that the mystery was solved. The guards discovered that the rabbi was using almost all his water to perform religious ritual washings before he prayed and before he ate. As a result, he had little water left to drink.
This story helps us appreciate better today’s gospel. It helps us understand better the shock and dismay Jewish leaders felt when they saw the disciples of Jesu eat without performing the ritual washings.
This is what makes today’s gospel reading so important. It focuses on one of the basic disputes between Jesus and Jewish leaders.
Let’s take a closer look at what this particular dispute involved.
When Jews talk about “the Law,” they mean one of the two things: either the “written” Law or the “oral” Law.
The older and more important of these two is the written Law. It is set down in the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament. It is something called the Law of Moses.
Some of these laws are concrete and specific. Others are very general, more like norms than laws.
for a long time, Jews were content with these general norms. They applied them to their lives as they saw fit.
Beginning with the fifth century before Jesus, however, there emerged in Israel a group of legal experts called scribes. They felt the general norms were too vague and should be spelled out more in detail. And they proceeded to spell them out.
This gave rise to the second set of laws—the oral laws, or oral traditions.
About the same time, there arose on the part of many Jews the desire to imitate the ritual holiness of their priests.
For example, according to the written Law, ritual hand washing was required of all priests before they entered the temple sanctuary. Its purpose was to wash away all ritual uncleanliness so that they could worship God more worthily.
Gradually the people began to imitate the priests and wash their hands before praying. In a similar way, the practice of washing before meals evolved.
By the time of Jesus, Jews observed these oral traditions just as minutely and faithfully as they did the written laws of the Torah.
The idea behind all of these observances was noble.
It was to try to make religion permeate every action of the day.
But in the course of trying to do this, something tragic happened. Slowly religion began to degenerate into an activity of performing external rituals.
To observe these rituals was to please God. Not to observe them was to sin. In short, observing these external rituals became identified with being religious and serving God.
To illustrate the danger of such legalism, William Barclay points out that theoretically someone might hate another with all his heart. But that “did not matter so long as he carried out the correct hand washings and observed the correct laws about cleanness.”
To make his point crystal clear, Barclay tells a story—probably apocryphal—about a Muslim pursuing an enemy to kill him.
In the midst of the chase, the public call to prayer sounded. Instantly the Muslim got off his horse, unrolled his prayer mat, knelt down, and prayed the required prayers as fast as he could. Then he leaped back on his horse and continued his pursuit.
It was precisely this kind of legalism that Jesus opposed so vigorously.
How does all this apply to us? It warns us that we too must guard against identifying religion with performing external acts.
For example, going to church, saying prayers, reading the Bible, and giving to charity do not, in themselves, guarantee holiness.
The reason is obvious. We can do all of these things, but for the wrong reason. We can do all of these things, but in an unloving way.
What counts is not what we do. What counts is the love in our heart that motivates us to do what we do. If our heart is filled with bitterness or pride, then all the external practices in the world won’t make us holy before God.
Today’s gospel invites us to look into our heart and ask ourselves, To what extent do the words in today’s second reading apply to us?
“Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to [God’s] word. . . Pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows . . .and to keep oneself from being corrupted.”
Or to what extend do these words of Isaiah, which Jesus cies in today’s gospel, apply to us?
“These people . . . honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me.”
In short, what counts in religion is not what we do, but why we do it. What counts is the love in our heart: love of God and love of neighbor.
Let’s close by reading prayerfully Paul’s famous words about love in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
“I may have the gift of inspired preaching . . . I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have . . . but if I have no love, this does me no good.
“Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs. . . . Love never gives up. . . . Love is eternal. . . . It is love, then, that you should strive for.” 1 Corinthians 13:2–8; 14:1
Series II 22nd Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8; James 1:17–18, 21–22, 27; Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
Thirty-Second Homily Religion doesn’t consist in doing things like following customs, but in doing things like helping the homeless and the hopeless.
A70-year-old priest made a retreat. In the course of it he was struck deeply by three things that he’d always been aware of but had never really taken to heart.
First, there are millions of people in the world who are hungry and homeless. Second, he had spent his entire priestly life living in a comfortable rectory and preaching comfortable sermons to comfortable people. Third, he had bent over backward to avoid disturbing or alienating his people.
The priest suddenly found himself reminded of a new pastor assigned to a church in Kentucky, not far from Churchill Downs, the famous racetrack. The first Sunday, the pastor preached on the evils of gambling and how this bad habit had caused so much pain and suffering in so many families.
After his sermon the president of the parish council called him and reminded him that many parishioners who generously supported the church made their living off horse racing and gambling.
The second Sunday, the pastor preached on the evils of smoking and how this bad habit had caused so much pain and suffering from lung cancer and premature death.
Again, the president of the parish council called and reminded him that many parishioners who generously supported the church made their living by growing tobacco, for which Kentucky was famous.
The third Sunday, the pastor preached on the evils of alcohol and how this bad habit had caused so much pain and suffering from drunk driving and broken homes.
Again, the president of the parish council called to remind him that many parishioners who supported the church made their living by working in distilleries, for which Kentucky was even more famous.
“Well, what can I preach on?’’ said the new pastor in desperation. “Preach against war mongers and crooked politicians,’’ said the president. “We don’t have any of them in the parish.’’
In other words, the 70-year-old priest found himself to be much like the priest played by Jack Lemmon in the film Mass Appeal. He preached only about those things that didn’t disturb his parishioners and made them feel good.
And now, like the priest in Mass Appeal, the old priest suddenly realized that he had been more worried about pleasing his people than about preaching the Gospel. He had been more worried about rocking the boat than about challenging his parishioners to look into their hearts to see if they were satisfied with what they saw there.
The week following his eye-opening retreat, the old priest looked up the Scripture readings to prepare his Sunday homily. They were the readings for this week.
As he read the Gospel, these words of Jesus leaped right off the page: “These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me.” Mark 7:6
The old priest resolved, then and there, that he was going to share his soul-searching with his parishioners. So he began his homily by saying:
“My homily this morning will be exactly 30 seconds long. That’s the shortest homily that I’ve ever preached in my life, but it’s also the most important homily I’ve ever preached.’’
With that attention-grabbing introduction, the old priest gave his 30-second homily. He said:
“I want to make just three points. First, millions of people in the world are hungry and homeless. Second, most people in the world don’t give a damn about that. Third, many of you are more disturbed by the fact that I just said damn in the pulpit than by the fact that I said that there are millions of hungry and homeless people in the world.’’
With that, the old priest made the sign of the cross and sat down.
That homily did three things that many homilies don’t do.
First, it caught the attention of the people. Second, it caught the spirit of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Third, it made the people look into their hearts.
The story of the old priest and the gospel reading make the same point.
Religion is not something we do on Sunday. It’s not, primarily, observing certain laws, saying certain prayers, or performing certain rituals.
That’s what many people in Jesus’ time had turned religion into. To observe these rituals was to please God. Not to observe them was to sin. In short, observing rituals became identified with being religious.
To illustrate the hypocrisy of such legalism, William Barclay tells this story—probably apocryphal— about a Muslim pursuing an enemy to kill him.
In the midst of the chase, the Azan, or public call to prayer, sounded. Instantly the Muslim got off his horse, unrolled his prayer mat, knelt down, and prayed the required prayers as fast as he could. Then he leaped back on his horse to pursue his enemy in order to kill him.
It was precisely this kind of legalism that Jesus opposed so vigorously in his time.
Jesus made it clear that religion isn’t something you do at certain times on certain days. It’s not saying certain prayers or performing certain rituals. It’s a thing of the heart. It’s a thing of the heart called love—love of God and love of neighbor.
Today’s Scripture readings invite us to look into our hearts and to ask ourselves to what extent the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading apply to us: “These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me.”
They invite us to look into our own heart and ask ourselves to what extent the words of James in today’s second reading apply to us: “Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice.” James 1:22–23
Let’s close by prayerfully rereading Paul’s famous words on love in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong. . . . I may have all the faith needed to move mountains— but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have . . . but if I have no love, this does me no good. . . . It is love, then, that you should strive for. 1 Corinthians 13:1–3, 14:1
Series III 22nd Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8; James 1:17–18, 21b–22, 27; Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
The greatest treason To do the right thing for the wrong reason.
T. S. Eliot ranks among the great poets of modern times.
When he died in 1965, he was claimed both by the United States—where he was born in the late 1800s—and by England—where he studied and became a naturalized citizen.
One of his most quoted passages reflects the thoughtfulness of his poetry. It goes like this: “The greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
Let me repeat that. “The greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
We have an example of that in today’s Gospel. There we find Jesus confronting the Pharisees for doing many right things but for the wrong reason
For example, they prayed, they fasted, they gave money to the poor; but they did these things for the wrong reason.
And what was that wrong reason? Jesus refers to it in Matthew 6. There he tells his disciples not to pray as the Pharisees do. They like to pray on street corners.
And why do they like to pray on street corners? Jesus replies bluntly, “[S]o that everyone will see them.” Matthew 6:5
Jesus continues by telling his disciples not to fast the way the Pharisees do. They put on a sad face when they fast.
And why do they put on a sad face? Again, Jesus replies bluntly, “[S]o everyone will see that they are fasting.” Matthew 6:16
Finally, Jesus tells his disciples not to give to the poor the way the Pharisees do. They make a big show of it.
And why do they make a big show of it? Once again, Jesus does not pull any punches. He replies bluntly, “[S]o that people will praise them.” Matthew 6:2
These are terribly strong words coming from the gentle Jesus.
Who were these Pharisees, anyway? And how did they get into the practice of doing the right things for the wrong reason?
They were mostly laypeople who wanted to reform Judaism. They felt that it had become too lax.
And so, in their minds, they became self-appointed models of what every good Jew ought to be.
Their reform focused on two points, especially: a more rigid observance of the Law of Moses and a more rigid observance of human traditions.
It was their rigid observance of human traditions, especially, that led them to do things for the wrong reason.
For example, among the human traditions were the endless ritual washings that Jesus referred to in today’s Gospel.
Worse yet, the Pharisees got so caught up in these highly visible human traditions that, in some cases, they put them ahead of the Law of Moses.
This is why Jesus spoke out so bluntly to the Pharisees, saying to them in today’s Gospel’ “You put aside God’s command and obey human teachings.” Mark 7:8
That brings us to the practical question you may be wondering about. It is this: How does this distortion of religion by the Pharisees apply to us in our lives today?
It applies in a very important way.
It reminds us that we, too, need to guard against turning religion into something God never intended it to be.
We can, unwittingly, do something similar to what the Pharisees did. For example, we can do or say things so much out of habit that they lose their original meaning.
Consider just one example.
Taking holy water upon entering a church and signing ourselves was originally intended to remind us of our baptism and to be a renewal of it.
Unfortunately, however, we can get so used to performing this act that it loses its beauty and meaning.
The bottom line is this:
God does not want us to perform acts and to say prayers mechanically and out of habit. God wants us to do our acts and say our prayers consciously and out of love. The apostle James refers to this in today’s second reading. There he says it is not enough for us to simply listen to God’s word.
We must translate it into acts of love directed to God and our neighbor. Paul makes the same point in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He writes:
I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have . . .but if I have no love, this does me no good. . . . It is love, then, that you should strive for. 1 Corinthians 13:2–3, 14:1
Let me conclude with a story. You may have heard it before. But it bears repeating, because it is a good illustration of doing the right thing for the right reason.
A mother went into the bedroom of her six-year-old son, Danny, where he was watching TV.
She said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need my shoes shined. I’ve got to run to the hospital for a few minutes.
“I’ve put the shoes outside on the sidewalk in the backyard. That way if you accidentally spill any polish, it won’t hurt anything.”
When Danny picked up the first shoe, he noticed something inside it. It was a dollar bill. A note attached to it said, “Thanks. This is for you.” It was signed “Mom.”
Later, when Danny’s mother slipped her foot into the first shined shoe, she felt something inside it. She took it out.
It was Danny’s dollar bill. A note was attached to it. It read:
“Thanks, Mom. But I shined your shoes not for money— but out of love. Danny.”