22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

We have an interesting set of readings today. In the first reading Moses tells the people “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your Fathers, is giving you.”

He goes on to tell them that if they observe the laws carefully, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the other nations. This was a tall order. The halakhah, or Jewish law, contains 613 individual laws covering every aspect of life; what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t eat, what you can and can’t wear, how to groom yourself, how to do business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and how to treat God, other people, and even animals.

The halakhah was a handbook for Jewish life and Jews were expected to observe it, as Moses tells them today. These laws are still in effect and many, but not all, Jews follow at least some of them. Whether a Jew eating a ham sandwich is destined for eternal damnation is a question that’s open to debate. But probably not, any more than you and I are going to hell for eating that same ham sandwich on a Friday during Lent.

As Christians, we believe in both Testaments, Old and New. Obviously we wouldn’t have an Old Testament reading as part of most masses if we didn’t believe it. But, look at today’s Gospel. Jesus contradicts Moses! He and His disciples didn’t follow Jewish dietary law. They were eating without purifying their hands, among other things that the scribes and Pharisees are more than anxious to point out.

Jesus responds by calling them “hypocrites”.

Jesus was a faithful Jew. He knew the Scriptures and the halakhah, all 613 laws of it. What’s the deal? What happened between Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel? What changed?

Maybe I can clear it up a little bit. When we were children we had to follow a lot of rules. We couldn’t cross the street without holding Mom or Dad’s hand. We didn’t have the experience or the maturity to make good decisions to keep from getting hurt or killed.

We had rules about when we got up and when we went to bed; when to clean our rooms and when to take a bath and brush our teeth. It’s a parent’s job to teach us how to live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I had more than 613 rules to follow as a kid.

But as we grow and mature, we have fewer rules. We learn to look both ways before we cross the street. We don’t have to hold Mom or Dad’s hand anymore. We learn that if we want to have friends, there are certain rules of hygiene that we have to follow.

Don’t get me wrong. If you leave here today and head up Lafayette Avenue and the light is red, you’d better stop. Not so much because it’s the law, but because there’s liable to be a car coming up Tucker that’s going to cream you if you don’t stop because he has the green light. Traffic laws are there for a reason and we should all follow them to protect ourselves and others.

So, what’s that got to do with today’s readings? The people of Moses’ time were spiritually immature. They needed a lot of rules. But after a few thousand years, God decided that we needed something else. We needed a Savior. He sent us His Son.

Rather than insisting that we wash our hands before meals, Jesus came to offer us something much simpler, and at the same time, much more difficult. He said that nothing that enters us from the outside can defile us. What defiles us is what comes from within. “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within.” Get rid of those things and you’ll be pure whether you wash your hands or not.

So, what happened between Deuteronomy and Mark? Jesus happened. He came to form a new covenant. Love God. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would Jesus do? “Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends.”

Instead of a giant book of laws, we have wall hangings and bumper stickers. It’s all very simple. But in many ways it’s harder than the original Jewish law. Under the old covenant, you could look at the laws and know what you had to do. If you could follow instructions, you could be a loyal and faithful Jew.

You and I have to make decisions. What does “love your neighbor” mean. Does it mean I have to be his best friend? Or does it mean that I just have to tolerate him? When I see a beggar in the street, do I have to give him all my money, or just some of it? Or can I just pass him by, knowing that he’ll probably spend any money I give him on booze or drugs? Is it up to me to make that call? It’s just all so confusing.

But, if we’re going to have freedom, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re easy choices. Sometimes they’re hard. But the New Covenant gives us free will. We can eat that ham sandwich without a guilty conscience, even though a salad might be a better choice.

Of course, we still have laws. We have those pesky traffic laws. But a speeding ticket isn’t going to send you to hell.

We have Jesus’ words in Sacred Scripture and that’s all we really need. There are thousands of books that have been written trying to tell us how to be good Christians. But one book is all we really need. Hopefully we all have one. It’s called the Bible. A friend of mine calls it B-I-B-L-E; Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

Also, don’t forget that Moses told the people that they must follow the law to “take possession of the land”. Jesus wasn’t interested in land. He was interested in saving our eternal souls. He gave us a very simple code to follow. “Love God. Love thy neighbor.” That’s it.

He left us with one very important decision to make. Do we want to be Pharisees or do we want to be disciples? It’s up to us.

9th Sunday of Ordinary Time–Love One Another

It seems like there’s a big difference between the words of Saint Paul and the words of Jesus in today’s readings.  Paul writes to the Romans “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Sola Fide.  Faith alone.  Once saved; always saved.  Many of our protestant brothers and sisters believe this passage justifies their belief that all we have to do to be saved is to accept Jesus Christ as our savior.

But then we have Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  So what’s the deal?

There’s more than one answer to this question, but take a close look at what Paul said.  “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” What are these works of the Law?

In the Jewish faith there are 613 laws which are taken from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Included in these 613 laws are the Ten Commandments.  But the Jewish religion has rules on every aspect of life;  what to eat, what to where, how to worship, how to speak.  You name it and the Jewish Law, the Halakhah, has a rule for it.

Now, at the time, there was a dispute among the early Christians about whether you had to be a Jew to be a Christian.  Did you have to follow the Halakhah to follow Christ?  The biggest issue was circumcision.  Remember, there was no such thing as anesthesia and circumcision was kind of a deal-breaker for adult men.  Scripture doesn’t say, but I imagine the women of the time didn’t think it was such a big deal.

Anyway, when Paul writes that a person is justified by faith, “apart from works of the Law”, that’s what he was talking about.  You could be a Christian without having to observe all 613 of the Laws.  The Ten Commandments were still in, but a lot of the other things were out.  Around the year 50 the Church held it’s first Council meeting, which we call the Council of Jerusalem to settle the issue.So, our protestant friends ask, wasn’t Jesus’ death on the cross enough?  Do we human beings really think we can add anything to that?  Why aren’t we justified by faith alone?

I think Jesus gives a pretty good answer in today’s Gospel reading.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Yes, Jesus’ death was enough, but we have to complete the work He started.

I think if I had to choose one passage in the New Testament that’s my favorite, it would be John 15:14.  It’s part of Jesus’ story of the vine and the branches.  “I am the vine and my Father is the vine grower.” He goes on to tell the Apostles that they must remain on the vine lest they wither and die.  The Father will cut away the vines that don’t bear fruit.  In verse 14, right in the middle of his monologue, he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What is His command?  “Love one another as I have loved you.”

That’s it!  Our whole faith is summed up in that one thought.  “Do what I tell you.  Love one another.  Then you’ll be my friend.”

So, how do we reconcile the idea of “faith alone” with doing good works?  Do we not need to run Catholic hospitals, and Catholic schools, and Catholic Charities, and Saint Vincent de Paul?  Should we bring all our missionaries home?  Of course not.  We know we’re saved by our faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But we also know that our faith requires us to do what Jesus tells us.  To be his friend, to stay on the vine, we’re called to love one another.  And we fulfill that love by doing good things.  We feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, and visit the sick, and a thousand other works of mercy, not because we have to, but because we want to be Jesus’ friends.

That’s all there is to it.  Love one another.  Eat pork if you want to.  Eat shellfish if you want to.  If you like your steak rare, that’s ok.  And circumcision is definitely optional.

Now, you may be thinking, “wait a minute, deacon.  Lent starts next week.  We’re not supposed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.  How’s that different from Jewish Law?  The difference is this.  We abstain from meat as a form of penance.  It’s a way of sharing in Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  We do it because we’re Jesus’ friends.  But it’s not a law.  You’re not going to hell if you eat a hamburger on Ash Wednesday where the consequences for a Jew who eats a pork chop is a whole different matter.

We observe the Lenten traditions because we want to, not because we have to, in spite of what your mom may have told you forty years ago.  Think about it.  How big a sacrifice is it to skip meat for eight days each year?  I mentioned in this week’s bulletin that “fish fry season” is my favorite time of the year.  I’m already working on my Friday dinner schedule for March and part of April.  It’s not a sacrifice.  It’s not penance.  But the Church asks us to do it, so we do.  What I’m suggesting this morning is that we all find some other form of penance for the next six weeks, something we either add or take away from our normal routine that requires a little effort, or maybe a lot of effort.  And, hopefully something that makes you a better person; a better version of yourself.

The Church today has gotten away from a lot of the “must dos” and I think it’s a shame.  No one in the history of the world has done more for us than Jesus of Nazareth.  He gave up His life for us and all He wants in return is for us to love one another as He’s loved us.  It seems like a very, very small price to pay.