Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
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Fr Galadima Bitrus, (OSA)
KEEPING FAITH WITH THE SOUL AND SUPREME LAW OF RELIGION
Every system where human beings constitute a part is prone to deterioration or even corruption and the only antidote to that is a culture of constant or at least periodic self-examination to determine the degree to which we are keeping faith with the fundamentals of that system.
This period of self-examination and evaluation becomes at once a period of renewal, repositioning, rededication to those fundamentals without which the soul or supreme law of such a system becomes more and more marginalized. Religion too is not insulated from the peril of deterioration or corruption unless it is subjected to this ritual of periodic reevaluation and rededication to its fundamental principles and norms, as the readings today show us.
In the 1st Reading (Deut 4:1-2.6-8), Israel is reminded of the ultimate purpose of the laws and precepts which the Lord is giving them through Moses, “So that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (4:1). In other words, the purpose of the law is to promote the life and wellbeing of the people in their given geographical and political space.
A law that fails to promote the life and welfare of its people but threatens it, lacks the soul of law, more so if it is associated with the God of life. The last canon of Catholic law (called, the Code of Canon Law) clearly makes this point employing the maxim, “salus animarum suprema lex”//“the salvation of souls is the supreme law” (CIC 1752). A similar principle is found in Roman Law, “Salus populi suprema lex esto”//“the salvation – safety/welfare – of the people shall be the supreme law” (in the “Twelve Tables of Roman Law”, dated ca. 450 B.C. and cited by Cicero in his “De Legibus” 3.3.8).
The passage also exhorts against corrupting the laws of the Lord by human additions or subtractions, but amidst changing times and situations, to keep faith with them: “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it…” (4:3). Finding itself among nations whose laws represent the wisdom and understanding of their kings, Israel distinguished itself by becoming a people guided by the superior wisdom and understanding of the Lord.
This Israelite idea of law as divine revelation or an embodiment of the will of God, therefore, diverges from the common ancient Near Eastern views of law as the embodiment of the wisdom of the king. In this way, Israel could boast of nearness to its God more than any other nation and of possessing more perfect and righteous laws than any other nation. As we read, “For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God…? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Torah that I set before you this day? (4:7-8).
The Gospel Reading (Mk 7:1-8.14-15.21-23) demonstrates the perennial danger of corrupting religion by too many additions of human traditions, making religion an encounter with a demanding God and a heavy weight to bear rather than a liberating experience with saving grace and with a saviour calling on those who are weary and overburdened to come and find rest (cf. Mt 11:28).
The Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes are presented as an example of those who were susceptible to the corruption of religion in the time of Jesus, by introducing too many human traditions. In this way, they got farther away from the “suprema lex” (supreme law) of religion which is the welfare of souls and not some obsession with the washing of the hands for the sake of washing the hands (cf. Mk 7:1-5). Thus, Jesus says to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mk 7:9), having cited Isaiah who once wrote, “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” (Mk 7:6-8).
Therefore, Jesus took it upon himself to redirect the people to the supreme law of religion, which consists in keeping clean above all the heart, not above all the hands: “For it is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intensions 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” (Mk 7:20-23).
Thus, when religion begins to focus on the externals (what one wears or eats, how one appears or looks), it may just be a sign that it is losing its soul, it is undergoing internal corruption or deterioration and needs to urgently reevaluate itself, repurpose and reconnect to its “suprema lex” (supreme law), the salvation or welfare of souls (“salus animarum”). St. Augustine realized this futile effort of seeking God in the externals and wrote, “You (God) were within me and I was in the external world and sought you there…you were with me but I was not with you” (Confessions X.27.38).
The 2nd Reading (James 1:17-27) is addressed to the “twelve tribes in the diaspora” (cf. 1:1), thus suggesting Jewish followers of Jesus living outside Palestine. The authorship is traditionally attributed to James the apostle, who in Gal 1:19, Mt 13:55 and Mk 6:3, is identified as the brother of the Lord, alongside Simon, Judas and Joseph (also called Joses). James is also identified as one of the three inner circle disciples of Jesus, alongside Peter and John, also considered the acknowledged pillars and leaders of the Church whom Paul went up to Jerusalem to visit on two occasions, essentially to confirm the Gospel he was preaching (Gal 1:19; 2:9).
James is also held to have been the head of the Church in Jerusalem, whom King Herod had arrested and killed before proceeding to arrest also Peter (Acts 12:1-3.17). He played a mediatory role in the debate on whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to accept circumcision and other Jewish works of the law (15:13-21). His position was diplomatic, not insistent on the observance of every iota of the law but not entirely abandoning all observances of the law, as Paul’s faction seemed to be advocating. This diplomatic position reflects in the passage of the letter which we have in the 2nd reading today.
In the first part of the passage (vv.17-18), the author alludes to creation, attributing to God the origin of every good gift and describing him as the Father of lights and unchanging in nature. In fact, in v.18 we read, “In fulfillment 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” (1:18). Thus, creation is presented as God’s own act which gives us origin, for God’s own purpose and by his own word of truth, that is, the word which corresponds to or brings about reality, God’s speech-act, so to speak.
The author then exhorts us in the second part (vv.21-22), to relate to the word of God in that same creative manner. In other words, God’s word which is directed to us as speech-act needs to be welcomed by us in a listening-act. As the author puts it, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has power to save your souls; be doers of the word, and not just hearers…” (1:21-22).
Finally, in v.27, the author recommends compassionate action and sanctity of life as concrete ways of creatively receiving God’s creative word. As we read: “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” (1:27).
In the teachings of the Apostle James, therefore, faith and works happily walk together; in him, the soul of religion is to be found in a healthy balance of social responsiveness and moral decency.
James comes to us as indeed an acknowledged leader of the Church, promoting a culture of dialogue, mutual recognition, accommodation and finding middle ground, and repudiating extreme tendencies that consider the very being of the one a threat to the other.
Fr Galadima Bitrus, OSA
Fr. Daniel Evbotokhai
THE GAME OF HYPOCRISY
In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses the Pharisees and scribes who raised the question of defilement based on external purity and not internal purity. For them, a man is clean inasmuch as he appears clean. For Jesus, a man is clean when his heart is pure. This game of hypocrisy was the pattern of the Pharisees and scribes. So, Jesus makes the crowd to understand that as clean as the Pharisees hands were, they often used them to pick and point, to finger and accuse, to indict and prosecute. Therefore, worship is not about external piety but interior spirituality. Your pots, hands, and the likes may be clean but if your heart is not clean you are not saved.
The Pharisees and scribes were religious leaders who appeared righteous to others, but within they were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Oftentimes we are not in any way different from these religious leaders. We want to appear holy and acceptable; but deep within us we are guilty of all possible crimes. The blame game going on in many churches in Nigeria is reflective of our pharisaic life styles and refusal to change. We pretend a lot and when we are found wanting we are not humble enough to accept our faults. Beloved, Christianity should not be a game of hypocrisy and pretence. We must wake up to the reality of our call.
Again, the Pharisees and scribes are not models; Jesus noted in the gospel “these people worship me with mere lips but their hearts are far from me”. They were not true worshippers because they neglected the weightier matters of faith and emphasized rules. Against this background, the second reading calls us to be doers of the word. We live in a world of many believers, gullible believers, many preachers and teachers but few doers. A witness is a man of action. If we do not act we have failed. Actions speak louder than words. Therefore, enough of this deception; enough of lip services; enough of these lies; let us begin to act. If we are examples of what we preach and teach the world will be a better place.
Like the Pharisees and scribes we know the traditions of the elders very well; we know all our ancestral practices but know nothing about God’s commandment. Again, we often want to emphasize our ancestral practices as God’s commandment. Jesus says in the gospel “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast to the tradition of men.” Christianity is about God’s truth not man’s tradition. God’s truth purifies man’s tradition and not the other way round. The Mosaic laws were not the tradition of the elders it was a divinely inspired and was given to Moses by God. To guide against abuses and possible deduction on these laws Moses wrote in the first reading of today “You must add nothing to what I command you, and take nothing from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God just as I lay them down for you.” Beloved, the commandments of God speak the whole truth about human life and salvation. Any addition or reduction is indicative of self-interest; bias and deception.
More so, speaking of God’s commandments, Moses said; “Keep them, observe them, and they will demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding.” This implies that if we don’t keep them we will demonstrate to the people foolishness and confusion. Obviously, looking at today’s Christianity, especially in Nigeria one will be correct to say that because we have refused to keep God’s commandments we are seen as foolish and confused people. In fact, because we have refused to keep the constitution we have constituted problems upon problems for ourselves. In a land where laws are not obeyed; disorder is the order of the land.
Lastly, correcting the impression of the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus said; “Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.” Now, we see the reason for our uncleanness. We are not ‘unclean’ because we ate or drank; we are unclean because of our evil thoughts; words; actions or omissions.
Fr. Paul Oredipe
True and Authentic Religion comes from the heart: Beware of hypocrisy
In today’s Gospel we have the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees over mechanical and external observance of rituals, traditions and customs. The message of Christ is quite explicit, clear and direct.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for clinging to purely human traditions and putting aside the law of God. This was a perversion of true spiritual values. A religion reduced to external practices is mere vanity. We must be guided by the Holy Spirit and set spiritual values.
In Jewish tradition, hands were washed not for reasons of hygiene or good manners but because the custom had religious significance: it was a rite of purification. In Exodus 30:17ff the Law of God laid down how priests should wash before offering sacrifice. Jewish tradition had extended this to all Jews before every meal, in an effort to give meals a religious significance, which was reflected in the blessings which marked the start of meals.
Ritual purification was a symbol of the moral purity a person should have when approaching God (Psalm 24:3ff; 51:4 and 9); but the Pharisees had focused on the mere external rite. Therefore Jesus restores the genuine meaning of these precepts of the Law, whose purpose is to teach the right way to render homage to God (cf. John 4:24).
To understand what Jesus is getting at here, we must recognize that this custom was not merely a social amenity. It was part of a religious tradition and therefore, it was intended as a symbol of piety, an outward sign of inner devotion to God’s will.
Thus, when Jesus recalls the words of the ancient prophet, “This people pay me lip service, but their heart is far from me,” He is calling the Pharisees’ value system into question. He is saying, in effect, “you have allowed custom to ‘take over.’ You have assigned too high a value to custom. You have embraced this and the hundreds of other religious ceremonials you practice as ends rather than means. And, for this reason I say to you, ‘your heart is far from God.'”
Jesus speaks of the “heart” not in the sense of the vital organ that pumps blood through the body, but rather as the seat of the whole inner life: the inner person as distinct from his or her outer conduct; the “hidden man” which God sees as distinct from the “outward face” which man sees. Above all, in this Biblical sense, the “heart” is the abode of the love of God and neighbor, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and the meeting place of Jesus and His brothers and sisters.
There was nothing wrong with the Jewish purification rule, but Jesus saw the Pharisees’ insincerity in citing the rule to him. They complained not because they loved God, but because they were out to “get” Jesus, whom they saw as a threat to their personal security. So they plotted to get rid of Him.
Our Lord is pointing out something He wants us to notice. Christ’s words to the Pharisees are a challenge and we can hardly deny that they apply to us also. The attitude of the Pharisees lurks within all of us, so a warning about it is never out of place.
Jesus is appealing to us to be on our guard against merely external compliance with ritual. If we are to keep our worship of God in true focus, we must call attention to what we are doing. Jesus is telling us that while man looks to appearances, God looks directly, openly to the heart and cannot be deceived. He is demanding that our innermost thoughts as well as our outward actions stand up to God’s scrutiny. We are to be continually searching out what God wants of us, purifying the way we live, and practising our religion. It is surprisingly easy for our prayers and ceremonies, for our worship to become heartless and without love.
We all can fall into this pitfall or danger of mere routine or external show. Jesus is telling us to look at what our lips say, and see if it matches or fits, what is in our hearts. God sees us as we are. Appearances, pretences, trying to make other people believe what is not the truth, all this is hypocrisy – the great sin of the Pharisee. What Jesus is teaching us today is that true religion is something deeper than appearances and pretences. It is stronger than what the lips can say. What is spoken by the heart, this is what God is happy with.
We can, at times, deceive other people. We can succeed in making them believe that we are what, in fact, we are not. We may even manage, on some occasions, to deceive ourselves. But, we cannot deceive God. He, who has made us, knows the depths of our hearts. And He wants to see truth coming from our hearts. This is what the Psalm reminds us: “Lord, who shall dwell on your holy mountain? He who speaks the truth from his heart”
We remember the story of Cain and Abel. Why was Abel’s sacrifice accepted? Because it was heartfelt, it comes from the heart.
The New Catechism of the Church teaches us that: “The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw”. The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation; it is the place of covenant. (CCC, 2562). All our religious activities and ceremonies have to come from the totality of what we are and what we have.
In order to help us understand divine things, Scripture uses the expression ‘heart’ in its full meaning, as the summary and source, expression and ultimate basis, of one’s thoughts, words and actions.
If religious practice does not come from the heart, it is empty, a fake. That is why Jesus could exclaim: “Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of men’s hearts that make him unclean”.
Interior religion, authentic worship of God, the religion of mind and heart, that is what is important. What counts in religion is not what we do, but why we do it. What matters is the love in our heart for our neighbour and this itself reveals our love for God. According to this meaning, he who is “authentic” does not live according to appearances, nor does he base his human value and richness on appearances.
St James sums it in the second reading: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”
The Catholic faith is one that has to be alive, dynamic and active. It is truly faith-in-action. The whole purpose of the Catholic faith, as every true Christian faith, is therefore an endless union with God and with fellow men and women. It is faith proved through deeds of love for God and the neighbour.
The test of one’s Catholic faith, as indeed any faith worth the name, is the degree to which it is embodied in the actual; life one lives and the deeds one does. It is to be lived out in practice in one’s community and social encounters with others. The Catholic faith becomes not a mere creed, a theoretical affirmation of what is not seen, but a deep commitment to a way of life, a Christian way of life. For the Catholic, therefore, the profession of faith in God becomes inseparable from discipleship, from following Christ in and through the Church.
To be a follower of Christ in the Catholic Church means, in short, to be guided or influenced in one’s actions particularly moral decisions, by Christ’s ethics and morality as taught and proclaimed by the Catholic Church. Jesus, in practice, becomes for the Catholics, as indeed, all true followers in other denominations, “the Truth, the Way and the Life” (John 14:6).
In the words of the Apostle Paul: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4: 8 & 9)
– What role do external observances play in our life of faith ?
– What do I like best and least about what comes from within me ? How can I control what comes from within ?
May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all now and forever. Amen.