29Aug Sunday August 29 2021. Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday, August 29 2021

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

Listening to God’s word brings life and wisdom

Moses said to the people: “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.

You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”

Responsorial: from Psalm 15

R./: Those who act justly will live in the presence of the Lord

Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue. (R./)

Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honours those who revere the Lord. (R./)

Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
shall never be disturbed. (R./)

Second Reading: James (1:17-18, 21-22, 27

As doers of the Word we must put it into practice too

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Scribes’ and Pharisees’ worship of God was mere lip-service

When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)

So these Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly 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 human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

What way to follow?

“You have abandoned the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Have you ever been sat in a church service and wondered that you might be out doing something more useful instead? It’s not that you don’t believe, not that you don’t feel that God is present in your life, but that you wonder if the church has anything to do with your faith. There are occasions when such thoughts have crossed my mind, perhaps it was a failing on my part, but there have been moments at church services where I did not get a great sense that I was meeting with the living Jesus.

The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is always exciting; always relevant to the problems and needs of people; always challenging to those who need change; always open to those who seek help; always a friend to the stranger; always a support to the tired and depressed; always an inspiration to anyone who tried to follow him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the most amazing, most charismatic, most life-changing man. Shouldn’t coming to church be about meeting with him?

I remember someone talking about growing up and having to endure what he called “the mind-numbing boredom of the Church of Ireland.” There are moment when I wonder if that feeling is widely felt in the Catholic Church too. When we hear Jesus’ scathing attack on the Pharisees, we think it’s got nothing to do with us. The Pharisees were a religious group 2,000 years ago, but they had become stuck in their ways. Their beliefs were sincere and they were good people, but the life and the power had gone out of their religion. Jesus says to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

The Pharisees would have been furious with Jesus, seeing him as a troublemaker and a rabble rouser. They would have been angry with him because he had hit a sore spot. Many devout Jews knew that their religion had become lifeless. The very reason why groups like the Pharisees had sprung up was to try to counteract what they saw as the rottenness and deadness at the heart of religion.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that what they believe is wrong. He tells them that how they go about practising their beliefs is the problem They have forgotten the commands of God and they have become concerned only with their own traditions.

There are many people, particularly younger people, who have no problem with Christianity, their problem is with the way the church goes about things. They are happy with the commands of God, what they are not happy with are the traditions of the church.

Jesus’ command to us is clear, to make disciples of all people, but we will not be able to do that if our traditions become an end in themselves. Traditions are only useful if they serve the original purpose, which is to tell people about Jesus. Jesus is not concerned with the outward rituals, he is concerned with what is in our hearts and the hearts of those we meet.

It is not what we do, it is the way that we do it. It’s not the outward traditions that count, it’s the faith we have in our hearts. There can be 16th Century liturgies that are full of warmth and life, and modern worship events that are cold and impersonal; what is important is that we meet with God and not just with tradition. What is important is our meeting with this amazing, charismatic, life-changing man, and our response to him.

Jesus criticized the worship of the Pharisees in words from Isaiah, ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’. I’m sure that criticism applies to all of us at times, it certainly does to me, what matters is how we respond. What matters is us asking ourselves, ‘how can I help make my church a place where anyone who walks in feel that they can meet with God?’

“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men,” Jesus accuses the Pharisees. Let’s not be guilty of the same accusation.

Whited Sepulchres

In ancient times burial was rarely permitted within the walls of a city, while one of the commonest places for tombs was by the side of public roads. You can see a great number of these latter, still bearing their inscriptions, more than 2,000 years later, just outside Rome, along the Appian Way leading towards Naples. A particular variant on this was that, just before the Feast of Passover, in Palestine, the roads to Jerusalem were thronged with pilgrims coming to celebrate this great annual feast. But, according to the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched a dead body, or came into contact with a tomb, became automatically unclean, and was thereby debarred from attending the ceremonies of Passover in Jerusalem. To prevent such a disaster it became a Jewish custom to whitewash all wayside tombs in advance of the Feast, so that they became more conspicuous, thus easier to avoid. So in the Spring sunshine these tombs stood out, sparkling white, and almost lovely, although within they were full of decaying bodies or bones, whose touch would defile.

According to Jesus, that was precisely what the Pharisees were like, whited sepulchres, devout men who seemed intensely religious in every way, but looked down with contempt on those they regarded as sinners. The name Pharisees means “separated ones,” a group who distanced themselves not just from gentile sinners, but also from lax Jews whom they deemed less observant of the Law. With haughty arrogance they dismissed such people as “a rabble that do not know the Law.” In today’s Gospel we see how the Scribes and Pharisees had come to hear Jesus, but instead of listening to what he had to say they just began to criticise the behaviour of his disciples. It was the age-old tactic of lowering a man’s credibility by disparaging his friends.

The charge against the disciples was that they were eating without having first washed their hands, and so were breaking the ancient Jewish traditions. This typified the Pharisees’ air of self-righteousness, and was based not on any interior, personal relationship with God, but from purely human customs. This is not to say that all Pharisees were bad or immoral. Some, like Nicodemus, were sincere searchers for the truth. But there is nothing harder for a good man than to avoid being proud of being good, and once pride intervenes, his goodness is tarnished, no matter how sincere he feels. There was always the possibility that in attempting to be perfect in every little detail of the Law the Pharisee could end up as a bigoted legalist, or indeed as a violent zealot. This is not simply a Christian verdict on the Pharisees, but rather that of the Jews themselves. For the Talmud cites seven different types of Pharisee, only one of them truly good. So when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as whited sepulchres, many of those listening would have agreed with him.

His warning holds a message also for each of us, to look inwards into the depths of our own souls. Deep within us God has written his Law, and it is our honour and duty to obey it, as we see it in our conscience. We will be judged according to the way we behave, based on what in our hearts we believe to be right and true and proper. “It is from within,” Jesus tells us today, “that evil arises.” He wants us to look beyond current opinion, the confrontations and problems of our own time, and strive for greater purity of heart. Steer clear of stupid conflicts and from slavery to convention and taboos, he says, and open up to the Holy Spirit’s word of life.

In need of pruning?

To some extent, most of us are creatures of habit. We have traditionally done things in a certain way and it can be hard at times to start doing things differently. The personal habits, or traditions that we have developed can serve us well; yet, there can come a time when they begin to hold us back. As well as personal habits or traditions, we also have communal traditions, traditional ways in which we as a society or as a church have done things. Those communal traditions can serve us well, but there can come a time when they can restrict us.

In the gospel Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees who had a great regard for what is referred to in that gospel as ‘the tradition of the elders.’ These were traditions that had been passed down orally for hundreds of years and that applied the Jewish Law to all the details of daily living. These traditions were not written in the Scriptures but they had come to acquire an authority that was equal to that of the Scriptures. In the course of his ministry, Jesus challenged the prominence that the Pharisees and other religious leaders gave to these religious traditions. In the gospel Jesus contrasts these human traditions to the commandment of God and he declares that in their zeal to uphold these human traditions, the religious leaders have ended up undermining the commandment of God. Jesus is implying that what mattered so much to the Pharisees did not matter to God. God had other priorities. Long standing traditions about ritual washings of hands and of cups and pots do not matter to God; what does matter to God, according to Jesus, is what is in our heart and what comes from out of our heart.

Those of us who are into gardening know we have to prune our bushes and shrubs. Otherwise, they can get too big and the flower or fruit loses its quality. Jesus was in many ways a pruner. He pruned back the traditions that had come to acquire an importance they did not deserve. In his pruning he tried to highlight what was most important in God’s eyes. Jesus did not jettison the Jewish tradition completely. In today’s gospel he critiques the traditions of the Pharisees by drawing upon the tradition of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus was able to identify in the Jewish tradition what really mattered to God and what did not. Jesus did not dismantle the Jewish tradition in order to start completely afresh. Rather, he wanted what was best in that tradition to flourish. He highlighted those elements of the Jewish tradition that revealed God’s desire for our lives, most fully. Jesus was very aware that religious tradition can hide God as well as reveal God. An important dimension of his work consisted in pruning back those elements of the tradition that were hiding God.

Our own religious traditions are always in need of pruning, be they our own personal traditions or the traditions of the church. What has become important to us over time may not be as important to God. That is why we need to keep going back to the New Testament and to the gospels in particular to learn over and over again what Jesus says is important to God. We have to keep going back to the source of our Christian tradition, which is the word of God, to allow that tradition to be purified and pruned. The Lord continues to speak to us through his word, reminding us of what is important to God and what, therefore, should be important to us. Today’s reading from the letter of James calls on us to ‘accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you.’ The word of the Lord is not just outside of ourselves in a book; it has been planted in us, through baptism. In attending to the Lord’s word we are attending to what is deepest within ourselves. James reminds us in that reading that accepting and submitting to the Lord’s word means not just listening to it but doing it, doing what the word tells us. If we submit to the Lord’s word in that full sense, then what is important to God will become important to us. The letter of James is very clear about what is important to God. In the words of our second reading, ‘pure unspoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’ I have no doubt that Jesus would have been very happy with that way of expressing what is important to God.

The first priority in God’s eyes is how we relate to one another, in particular how we relate to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Jesus did not hesitate to heal the sick on the Sabbath even though the tradition of the elders held that this constituted work and so was unlawful. The words and deeds of Jesus are always are best guide to what is of real value in our own religious tradition and what it is that may need to be put aside.


One Response

  1. Thara Benedicta

    Key Message:
    Jesus wants to be actively involved in our lives; Let us live actively involved with Jesus!!

    The takeaway from the first reading:

    Moses very clearly says “Obey all the commandments of God, so that you will be able to enjoy all the gifts God has planned to give you”.
    How does it apply to our life?
    Doing whatever is the right thing to do. Often we get panicked when we hear that we need to do the commandments of God. But that’s easier in the long run. That is easier because when we do what we are able to do in the right way, God will take care of the rest.
    We will make our own issues bigger when we do not follow God’s commandments, because we multiply the issues by our own emotional responses, finally regretting it.

    Our response to a challenge makes the challenge either big or small.

    The 600,000+ Israelites who left Egypt were not able to enter the Promised Land (apart from Joshua and Caleb). They perished due to their rebellious attitudes, complaining attitude, accusing words, and so on. If they had not cribbed for eating the Manna (food from Heaven) or accused Moses for bringing them out of slavery, they would have easily entered the Promised Land. It is so astonishing to know that they did not do any big sins like murder or theft to miss their Promised Land. They had done their complete part of hard work. If they had walked through the wilderness happily, they would not have missed it. The reason was their ungrateful attitude.

    All their sins like complaining and accusing are committed by us in our day-to-day life!!
    Are these sins stopping us from entering our Promised Land too?

    The takeaway from the second reading:

    The Apostle James in the first few statements of the second reading explains that every good gift is always from above, our Almighty God, and whatever God does, will not have shadow (there is no darkness in it, it’s always right).

    For example, let us consider the route of the Israelites till they reached the Red Sea. There was a shorter route but God purposefully led them through the long route to reach the Red Sea, because He knew that if they traveled by land, the Egyptian army would have surrounded them. So He took them on a longer route and gave them a sea-carpet welcome!! Furthermore, He drowned their enemies.

    When we undergo difficulties in our lives, we often wonder if God even cares for us, does He even think about me, and so on? Sufferings are part of everyone’s life. We should not blame God. God does everything with a clear purpose. When we undergo suffering, we should always remember that God is our loving Father and friend. Our attitude should be “God is doing this for something good”.

    The next verses:
    You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

    These are very practical explicit requirements from the ‘Word of God’.
    Can we question ourselves the following:
    1. Am I quick to listen?
    2. Am I slow to speak?
    3. Am I getting angry too quickly?
    When we listen more, we learn more. When we speak more, we can also exhibit our foolishness more. If we get angry thoughtlessly, then we will lose our friends easily.

    Another major benefit of listening more and speaking less is we will always be able to maintain a separate communication channel with God. It allows us to speak with God through our thought on the worldly issues we are undergoing. In the middle of a conversation, we can ask, ‘God what should I respond now?’ and then go ahead and respond. This will enable us to speak with our invisible friend who is waiting to be at our service.

    The takeaway from the Gospel reading:

    God did not create mankind such that man will live on earth and God will live in Heaven, without any relationship with each other. God regularly came to the garden of Eden to go for a walk with Adam and Eve. He did not wait for every Sunday to go for a walk and enjoy time with Adam and Eve. He wanted to be with them daily. This is the level of intimacy He is longing to have with us too. God wants to enjoy His life by going on a walk with us. He wants to talk with us, the same way He shared His secrets with the prophets. He wants to always be with us, settled within us as the Holy Spirit, so that He can talk with us and we can talk with Him.
    When the Pharisees and the scribes try to find fault with Jesus (because His disciples are not following human traditions) Jesus calls them ‘hypocrites or cheaters’. We can see His longing for pure worship when He quotes the scriptures ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’.

    When we do not concentrate and just say prayers for the sake of completing our daily goal, or when we read the Bible without understanding but for the sake of completion we also cheat ourselves.

    Tips to implement the takeaways:

    1. As we enter the church, let our thoughts be, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God;” Genesis 28:18.
    Going to church realizing that we are in the house of God makes us experience the reality of the presence of God. On the other hand, if we legalistically go to church every Sunday, spend an hour in church, come back and then again go to church the next week as a formal practice, then we will miss the enjoyment of being in the presence of God.

    2. Are we the modern ‘hypocrites’? When we are praising, are we praising only with our lips or are we praising our Jesus wholeheartedly?

    3. Are we waiting for every Sunday morning to have our communication with God? Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” We need to remain in the presence of Jesus always, not only on Sunday mornings.

    4. The Apostle James says that we should be ‘Doers of the word’. If we are merely hearers then we are cheating ourselves. Can we analyse what areas in our life are not aligned with the word of God? What are the practical changes we need to do? For example, Jesus says ‘forgive others’. Are we able to forgive others? If not let us ask God to give us the capability to forgive others.
    We will have many areas in our life to align with God’s word. We can frame up a monthly plan for example, ‘In the month of September, I will work on forgiving from my heart all those who hurt me’. We can search the scriptures for messages related to forgiveness or read books on the topic of the month. Most importantly, we need to ask for help of Jesus.

    5. An easy definition of ‘a pure religion’ is provided in the Bible (second reading): “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
    How do we implement this? We can consider only one charitable duty but do it consistently. If the Holy Spirit guides us to do many, then we can do as per the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Or else let us take care of only one action item and do it completely till the end. If we want to take care of orphans, and we found an orphanage, let us keep taking care of that particular orphanage all through our life. If we cannot help financially, we can help poor children in their studies, or taking care of elders. Maybe sometimes it is our own unemployed brothers or sisters whom God wants us to help.
    Sometimes people get excited and do a lot of charitable work, but very soon they get frustrated and stop when the excitement dies down. So let us take a lifetime goal of one charitable act and give joy to God our Father.

    Let us be doers, not merely hearers of God’s word.