September 2, 2018
Fr. Joseph A. Jacobi
We have finished our Scripture summer vacation through Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel and now return to the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel for this liturgical year. We spent the last 5 Sundays coming to know more fully Jesus as the Bread of Life who gives his flesh for the life of the world, who hungers for union with us, that we might live and love with Him and in Him. As we are drawn deeper into this intimate union with the Word of God made Flesh, we recognize more fully with Peter that he alone has the words of everlasting life. That Jesus is the Word of everlasting life.
Today in Mark’s Gospel the words Jesus speaks to the Pharisees & scribes help us to see more clearly the danger of hypocrisy and the importance of integrity in our life of faith. Some of the Pharisees and scribes focus only on the externals of religion, following the rules. They neglect the heart of religion, the most important law of God to love God by loving one’s neighbors. (Remember in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus puts no limit on who one’s neighbor is.) Jesus looks into the heart, while they focus only on external appearances.
Jesus hangs out with those whom the religious hypocrites of the day consider to be sinners, whom they would never get close to for fear of being contaminated and becoming unclean.
These “religious” ones believe that someone like a deaf mute is a sinner, thinking that such a person has done something terribly wrong to be punished by God with such a serious disability. However, Jesus sees those who struggle with disabilities and sickness as revealing the glory of God and knows they trust in God’s care more than the healthy do.
The Pharisees see a tax collector as a traitor, working with the Roman occupiers and making money off his own Jewish brothers and sisters, whereas Jesus looks into the heart of Matthew the tax collector and sees an apostle.
The religious leaders see a prostitute and label her a sinner while Jesus gets to know these women as warriors who do whatever is necessary to provide for their starving children. The Pharisees and scribes believe those who are rich are blessed by God, and conversely that those who are poor must be cursed by God. But by caring for the impoverished, Jesus shows that the poor are God’s favorites.
Judgment spews from the Pharisees and scribes—they judge others on the externals. Mercy flows from Jesus, because he sees into the heart, and as Savior has come to save those who need him. Such Pharisees and scribes never even attempt to know those they consider sinners, because these “pious” ones stand at a distance judging, while Jesus dines with sinners, feeding them with the gift of God’s saving mercy.
The Pharisee in each one of us is convinced that by keeping the rules we can earn our salvation. The Pharasaical temptation is to think we can save ourselves by focusing only on externals, by perfect observance of the rules.
This kind of thinking leaves Jesus out of the picture. There is no purpose and no reason for a Savior in this kind of system. In his debate in today’s Gospel with the Pharisees, Jesus takes a stand against this kind of thinking. Salvation is from the hand of God made visible in Christ. It is a free gift, not something we can earn and then think we can deserve. Jesus is the perfect gift come from God the Father who saves us from ourselves. For we all fall into the trap, in one way or another, of thinking we can earn our salvation.
The danger with this kind of thinking is that it leads to judging others as unclean, as unworthy, as outside of God’s care. If we think we can earn salvation by earning the approval of God, then we think we deserve it by what we do, and thus those who do not do the same are condemned. When we focus only on the externals, it is easy to be both jury and judge in our relations with others and consider them to be outside of God’s care and thus outside of ours as well.
Jesus’ message—pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to what resides in your own heart. For from within the heart arise thoughts which make one unclean, which defile a person. The Savior of the World, the one who is the Word of Life, waits on us to invite him into a deep-sea dive into the depths of our heart. With him we can plunge into the darkest recesses of our heart and ask him to save us from whatever death-dealing attitudes reside there.
On Judgment Day I think we will be asked by God not whether we perfectly followed the “rules” but whether we loved our neighbor and thus demonstrated our love for God.
According to St. James, one of the 12 apostles who learned at the feet of Jesus, religion which is pure and undefiled before God is this : “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.” (James 1: 27) That’s right—loving the most vulnerable in our world, reaching out to lift them up in their time of struggle and suffering—this is what real religion looks like.
This is what it means to love the Son of God, who became poor that we might become rich in God’s mercy.
As we journey through these Sundays of September, we will keep returning to the Letter of James and his challenging teaching on what real religion looks like.
The word of God in this letter will lay bare the temptation of our hearts to judge others on appearances. James will point out that even in an assembly of Christians gathering for worship, this deadly dynamic continues to play out, as we welcome the well dressed person and shun the poor person in shabby clothes. Think about it— how would you react if a homeless person came in here looking for a seat?
Or Christians only offer prayers of blessing for those who have nothing to wear or no food to eat, instead of clothing and feeding them in their need.
A living faith, as James points out, leads to good works, for we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only. If we want the living Word of God to take root in our hearts and dispel the darkness living there, then we are called to love him present in the least of our brothers and sisters.