Sunday Reflection - The essence of God's law

An elderly monk, Father Benedict, was returning to his monastery from a journey.  With him was a young novice, Brother Ardens.  It had been raining and the road was muddy.  When they came to a dip in the road still covered with water, they found a beautiful young girl standing there afraid to proceed, lest her beautiful long dress be soiled.  “Come, dear,” Father Benedict said when he saw her predicament.  “I’ll carry you.”  He picked the girl up in his arms and carried her across to higher ground.  She thanked him, and the two monks walked on in silence. 

When they reached the monastery, Brother Ardens felt he had to say something about the incident he had witnessed.  “Monks are supposed to keep away from women, especially from beautiful young girls.  How could you pick up in your arms that girl we met on the road?”

 “Dear Brother Ardens,” the older monk replied, “I put that girl down as soon as we reached dry ground.  You have carried her in your thoughts right into the monastery.”   

 The young novice was like the Pharisees in the gospel reading of today: zealous, as many young people are, and determined to see all the rules and regulations carefully observed.  The ardent young monk never realized that this could mean failing in something even more important: helping someone in need.

 Two of our readings today are about rules and regulations.  In the first reading Moses tells the people “not to add to God’s law or subtract from it.”  He also tells them that the ten commandments, which embody God’s law, are a privilege and a gift.  “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”  The commandments are not a fence to hem people in.  They are ten signposts pointing the way to fulfilment and happiness.  

 This view of God’s law as a special privilege is central to Jewish religion.   It was Jesus’ view: imparted to him at home by Mary and Joseph, and in the synagogue school at Nazareth.  In our gospel reading Jesus accuses the Pharisees of perverting God’s law.  “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”  The Pharisees were not bad people.  They were good people, and deeply religious.  Their failure in regard to God’s law is common to religious people – ourselves included.  Jesus’ rebuke to these Pharisees is not just long ago and far away.  It remains a warning for to us today.

Religious people (and that means us) can pervert God’s law in the two ways indicated by Moses in our first reading: by adding to it, or by subtracting from it. Those who subtract from the law are concerned only with fulfilling their “minimum obligation.”  They are always asking: “Do I have to?”  That is a child’s question, not an adult’s.  Even the tone of voice in which it is asked shows its immaturity.  

 Catholics who go through life asking, “Do I have to?” know all their minimum obligations by heart.  They even know (or think they know) how late they can come to Sunday Mass, and how early they can leave, and still have it “count.”  There is one thing, however, which these minimum-obligation Catholics do not know: joy.  If your primary concern is finding out how little you need to do for God and his church, then you will experience these minimum obligations not as light, but as heavy burdens.  Why is that?

People who concentrate on minimum obligations are living with God on the fringe of their lives.  They don’t realize that as long as we keep God on the fringe, he will always be a threat to us.  God will always be trying to move into the center.  Show me a person whose religion is a source of joy, and I will show you someone whose life is centered on God.  

That is how Jesus lived.  Like all Jews, Jesus treasured God’s law: it was at the heart of his personal religion.  Can you imagine Jesus asking, “Do I have to?”  or being concerned about fulfilling his minimum obligation?  He did that automatically.  Jesus never asked, “How much to I have to do for God?”  He asked instead, “How much can I do?”  Jesus was like a person in love.  No one in love ever asks, when it is a question of doing something for the beloved, “Do I have to?”  People in love are continually looking for new ways to express their love through generosity and self-sacrifice.   

What about Moses’ other warning: not to add to God’s law?  Who would ever do that, you ask?  More people than you might think. We add to God’s law when we think that by going beyond our minimum obligation we can gain extra credit – a rising credit balance in some heavenly bank which God is bound to honor.  Extra-credit Catholics forget that, though God is unbelievably generous, he never owes us anything.  It’s the other way round.  We owe him everything.  “When you have done everything you have been commanded to do,” Jesus says (and which of us has?), “say, ‘We are useless servants.  We have done no more than our duty’” (Lk 17:10).  If concentrating on minimum obligations is the failing of the lax and lazy, thinking we can earn extra credit with God is a failing of those who are specially devout.  It is sobering to realize that the people to whom Jesus most often speaks severely in the gospels are the specially devout.

 “You hypocrites,” Jesus says in the gospel.  He spoke those words not to open and notorious sinners, but to people who prided themselves on the exact fulfilment of God’s law; who actually went far beyond what the law required.  Their error lay in supposing that this gave them a claim on God which he was bound to honor.  We never have a claim on God.  God has a claim on us, and it is an absolute claim.  

 God’s love and our salvation are not things we can earn.  They are God’s free gift.  God bestows these gifts on us not because we are good enough, but because he is so good that he wants to share his love with us.  God’s law is not the list of rules and regulations that we must first obey before God will love us and bless us.  God’s law is, rather, the description of our grateful response to the love and blessing which God has already bestowed on us out of sheer generosity.   

Does this mean that there is no “just reward” for those who do try to obey God’s law?  Of course not.  God’s reward for faithful service is certain.  Jesus tells us this in many gospel passages.  He warns us, however, that those who try to calculate their reward in advance will be disappointed.  The people who are most richly rewarded – who are literally bowled over by God’s generosity – are those who never stop to reckon up their reward because they are so keenly aware of how far short they still fall of God’s standard.  

 If we want to experience God’s generosity (and is there anyone here who does not?), we must learn to stand before God with empty hands.  Then we shall experience the joy of Mary, who in her greatest hour, when she learned – astonished, fearful, and confused – that she was to be the mother of God’s Son, responded with words which the church repeats in its public prayer every evening:

“The hungry he has given every good thing, 

          while the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk 1:53).




Sunday Reflection - Prophetic witness in the marketplace

Should the Church get involved in politics?  Many people say, “No way.”  “Religion and politics don’t mix.”  Others disagree.  A religion, they say, that is unwilling to leave the four walls of the church and go out into the public square is irrelevant to real life.  Whenever fundamental moral issues are at stake, these people maintain, the Church must get involved.  Otherwise the Church risks being untrue to its Lord and his message.

          But which political issues actually do involve moral issues important enough to justify the Church’s involvement?  Is capital punishment such an issue?  What about the decision of our government to arrest, detain and separate immigrant families from their children who attempt to cross our borders illegally?   Pope Francis is opposed to both.  So are the American bishops.  What about issues that touch upon the nitty gritty and often contentious area of tax reform? While the common good of any nation is often dependent on its ability to provide for its citizens through income derived from taxation, the intricacies of various plans allow for legitimate differences among people of good will.  Hence, I would be extremely suspect of anyone, let alone a Bishop in the Church, who might state, “This is THE Catholic approach to tax reform!”  While it is the Church’s role to articulate general moral principles that speak of a nation’s responsibility to insure the common good, it is left to knowledgeable elected officials,  economists and experts in taxation, to work out the specifics of a fair and equitable taxation policy for a nation.

          Our first reading today introduces a religious figure who was severely condemned for involvement in politics.  Like his countryman, Jesus, centuries later, Amos was a layman with no professional training for religious office.  “I was no prophet nor have I belonged to the company of prophets,” Amos told the priest in charge of the sanctuary at Bethel.  God called Amos while he was still a shepherd and farmer, and commanded him: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

          God gave Amos no crystal ball to predict the future.  That is not the prophet’s task.  Instead Amos, like all true prophets, was summoned to speak “a word of the Lord” to the people of his day: to warn, to admonish, to rebuke, and to encourage.  As a simple countryman, living close to nature, Amos was scandalized by his glimpses of city life during his visits to market.  He records what he saw there: wealthy, callous plutocrats, overfed and over-housed, spending their time thinking up new ways to amuse and enrich themselves.  Meanwhile poor peasants like Amos, burdened with debt, could be sold into slavery for the price of a pair of sandals.           

         Amos saw this glaring social injustice compounded at the religious sanctuaries.  There he found prosperous worshipers rejoicing in their good fortune, which they interpreted as proof of God’s favor.  To this rotten and decaying society, the official prophets and priests had nothing to say but what a later prophet, Isaiah, would call “smooth words and seductive visions” (Is. 30:10) — rather like certain religious speakers at prayer breakfasts of political and business leaders today.         

         Without mincing his words, Amos pronounced his society ripe for God’s judgment.  Here is a sample of his message: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy ... ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain? ...We will fix our scales for cheating!  We will buy the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’  The Lord has sworn ... Never will I forget a thing they have done! ... I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation.”  (Amos 8:4-10)  Those are strong words.  No wonder that the priest, Amaziah, roundly condemned Amos for this unwelcome message, and for daring to speak at all in a place of religious pilgrimage without permission.  With the contempt of the religious functionary for the upstart outsider Amaziah tells Amos: “Off with you, visionary ... Never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”          

         In the gospel we heard Jesus telling his disciples they would face similar rejection, and how to behave when they did: “Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.”  Rejection was sure to come because of the message Jesus gave them.  “They went off,” the gospel says, “and preached repentance.”  Repentance is never a popular message.  In the Bible, the word means more than regret for past actions which we see, by hindsight, were wrong.  Repentance means a fundamental change of direction.  It means turning around from self to God.  Repentance means putting God at the center of life rather than somewhere out on the fringe.         

         If Amos were to come back today, what are some of the things he would denounce in our society and tell us we needed to repent of?  Here is a short list.         

         One which was often mentioned by our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is consumerism.  This is the false idea that we can buy happiness by amassing more and more possessions.  A whole industry exists to promote this idea: advertising.  Advertising which tells us where we can get things we need, at prices we can afford, is useful.  But advertising designed to kindle desire for things we never knew we needed until we saw the ad is questionable at least.                   

         Something else which cries out for repentance is hedonism: the mindless philosophy that says, “If it feels good, do it.”  Hedonism wrecks lives, relationships, and marriages, every day.  

          We need to repent also of the hard-hearted selfishness which ignores the needs of the poor and oppressed in our midst; or which thinks that our obligation to them can be discharged by gifts to charity from our surplus goods, with no examination of unjust conditions in society that cause poverty and oppression.          

         We need to repent too of an over-spiritualized religion which is concerned only with saying prayers and getting into heaven; and which ignores the challenge which Jesus gave us in his model prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Those words challenge us to build colonies of heaven here on earth — by living not just for ourselves, but for God and for others.           

         That is a short though incomplete list of the demons mentioned at the end of our gospel reading against which Jesus sends us today.  Demons so powerful, and so pervasive, can be driven out by one thing alone: repentance.  And the repentance to which Jesus summons us is not somewhere else, tomorrow.  It is here, and it is now.  And repentance begins not with someone else.  If it is to begin at all, repentance must begin with ourselves.