Just a Thought.
Today as we resume the readings of Saint Mark’s Gospel, we meet a controversy over ritual cleanliness: “Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders, but eat their food with unclean hands?” Ask the Pharisees and Scribes. The Pharisees needed to be answered (clearly the dispute wasn’t private; Jesus had to make some kind of statement), but Jesus was not about to hand them an obvious propaganda victory. Jesus answers by pointing out their hypocrisy and quotes from the Prophet Isaiah — telling them that their worship is worthless and that the doctrines they teach are only human regulations: “You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions”.
All three readings today tie in with one another. In the first from Deuteronomy, Moses urges the people to be faithful to God’s law, “without adding to it or subtracting from it”. It is not a burden to be endured, but a source of life and wisdom. The Gospel shows what happened in practice to the law of God (given through Moses); as we see, they soon added their own traditions, which came to be regarded as equally authoritative and binding. Worse still, they got in the way of God’s law.
The second reading from the letter of Saint James shows the essential link between faith and love — Nothing could be more practical than this; nowhere is the way to sanctity so clearly indicated, as we shall see over the next few weeks. St James’s Letter has sometimes been viewed as a sort of first Christian examination of conscience because of the concrete character of the situations and actions that are the subject of the author’s reflections and often sharp criticisms: “Be doers of the Word and not hearers only”.
In this brief sequence of readings, we should try to dwell on putting into practice God’s Word, which we regularly hear proclaimed in the liturgy. We should never think that these words do not apply to us in our modern day society; if truth be known, they are more important than ever. “Now Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe.” In these words of Moses, we have here, an urgent appeal to conversion, enhanced by the recalling of the ancestor’s unfaithfulness and the misfortunes it has caused — all very relevant for us today. “Oh that today you would listen to His voice. Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert, when your father’s put me to the test; when they tried me, though they saw my work.”
We can very easily fall into the trap too, of putting God to the test. Taught by their experiences, we should avoid committing the same errors and the same sins, for just like the Jews our own life is an exodus that should bring us to the promised land of heaven. To guide us in how to live and reach our eternal goal, Jesus is with us: “Close to us every time we invoke Him.” His Word too, ever new, is close to us calling to each of us, and leading us towards, what seems like a never attained perfection, and yet, we know it is attainable one day, because He tells us so: “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)
In his letter to the Philippians we’re told by Saint Paul: “I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, the perfection that comes from the law, but I want only the perfection that comes from faith in Christ and is from God and is based on faith…. I strain ahead for what is still to come; I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3: 9-15) and the prize: “No eye has seen and no ear has heard or mind conceived, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” If we keep these things in mind it should prevent us from the temptation of settling into any sort of self-satisfaction, or into an introverted complacency.
There are so many things that we can draw from today’s readings, far more than we can elucidate here, but we must first and foremost listen to Christ’s words: “Hear me, all of you, and understand — Nothing that enters one from outside can defile a person, but the things that come out from within are what defiles that person.” It’s what’s in our heart that matters — The primary reason for being at Church today is to worship God; and worship Him as he deserves to be worshipped, He is our creator, He is our God, He holds us in being. Jesus says of the Pharisees and Scribes in today’s Gospel however that they do not worship God as they should: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Hence their worship was hollow and empty. It’s a danger that faces all of us — we too can sometimes become complacent and with complacency there is a danger of being at the Mass, and yet, not being there at all; with our minds filled with distraction and lack of awareness of the miracle of loving and worshipping God. This is what the Lord meant when He said that “This people honours me with their lips, but not with their hearts.” It’s an insult of the greatest degree. If a person’s not careful and keeps his heart in check, he will soon find that his complacency has become habit, and like the Pharisees without realising it, his worship of his Creator will become unfulfilling.
A telephone answering machine is a good example of being able to be in two places at once — in itself it’s a good thing; but when we make a phone call we prefer to be greeted by another human being rather than by a machine. Yet, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, a person’s voice can be there, whilst the person is actually absent.
Long before such gadgets as answering machines were invented man had already discovered that they were actually able to do exactly what the machine does — to be present in voice only. No-where is this seen so clearly as in the case of the worship of God. This is another reason why Our Lord said of the Pharisees and Scribes that they honour God with their lips only — and not with their hearts. Unfortunately, this can also be the case today, people can be present in Church in voice only, making all the right responses and prayers but not really participating and so worship becomes merely lip service; words where feeling, passion, gratitude, commitment are not present. The most important element is missing, namely, the heart. The same sort of thing happens in other circumstance too — it becomes a habit — at meetings, or gatherings of people, at public functions or formal occasions — people are there — but not in their true self. It’s almost an artificial self, a dressed up likeness. To meet such people is to meet a shadow, you are left with an empty feeling — and probably don’t know why. In the worship of God though — God see’s this emptiness and I’m sure it saddens Him, as it’s an affront to His Divine Majesty. How different real presence is. In the Mass God comes to us with His Real Presence, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, nothing else will do for Him, so we owe Him nothing less. God seeks to fill our Hearts with Himself. For our words to ring true, they must be spoken from the heart. If they come only from the lips, they will have a hollow sound. And while the words may be clever, they will never convince or inspire. Take the word forgiveness for instance — if it does not come from the heart, of what use is it? It will not set the offender free. Nor will it result in a true reconciliation between the parties. And the word peace — if it’s not from the heart, can it bring peace? Of course not. It is only with the heart that we can speak rightly. And a presence without a heart is like a fireplace without a fire — or a telephone answering machine — or more importantly a person in Church lost in complacency.
What is the quality of my presence at Mass on Sunday? I can only tell by whether or not my heart is in it. What does it mean to put one’s heart into one’s worship of God? It implies sincerity, depth of commitment, and above all, love. The Gospel places great emphasis on the heart, and we can see why. The heart is the source from which all our thoughts, words and deeds flow. The Pharisees and the Scribes could not accept this; they had substituted so many of their own rules for the laws of God that they put themselves above God: “Hypocrites! … You put aside the commandments of God to cling to human traditions.” They paid more attention to the outside than to the inside. With their man-made laws they were more pre-occupied with having clean hands than having clean hearts. Jesus points out to them:
“Nothing that goes into a man from the outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that makes him unclean — for it is from within a man’s heart, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within and make a man unclean.”
If the heart is clean, then all that flows from it will be clean; like water flowing from a pure spring. It is the heart that matters. To our heart God gives all, we present prepared to offer all. We should love Him with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our strength. (Deut 6:5). Then we shall go a little way in offering to God the praise and worship He deserves from us. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand.” (Mk 6:14).