The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [B] – Aug. 30, 2015

Here is the homily preached at St. Peter Parish in Schulte on the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B], August 30, 2015. For the Mass Scripture readings, click HERE.

For the homily’s text, jump below… 

The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8 + James 1:17-18,21-22,27 + Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
August 30, 2015

“All good giving and every perfect gift is from above….”

After hearing the lofty words of Jesus in John 6 for five Sundays, we return this Sunday to St. Mark’s account of the Gospel. From the “Bread of Life”, we move to cups and jugs and kettles and beds. From the sublime, we move to the mundane. But for all the differences between last Sunday’s and this Sunday’s Gospel passages, there’s one thing that they have in common.

Jesus is at the center of conflict. The conflict caused by Jesus’ claims about the “Bread of Life” resulted in many of His disciples abandoning Him forever. The conflict in today’s Gospel passage is more pointed, even if it doesn’t yet boil over. The conflict here is more pointed because it’s a two-way street: both Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are faulting the other.

Consider what the scribes and Pharisees are faulting Jesus for. We could sum up their case very simply as claiming that Jesus is being unfaithful to today’s First Reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Book of Deuteronomy, which is the fifth book of the Bible, and the final book of the Jewish Torah, is set on the threshold of the death of Moses. It is the end of the Exodus, that forty-year trek from slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness of the Sinai desert, to the Promised Land of milk and honey.

Very likely, no one here in this church today—myself included—can appreciate this forty-year trek of the Israelites. None of us can wrap our heads around what it means to be on-the-move for forty years: without a stable home and with only a tent for lodging for four decades. But part of the difficulty in understanding this forty-year pilgrimage is the fact of what a short distance—as the crow flies—this journey consists of. I did an Internet search a few days ago to learn how many miles the Exodus would have taken if the Israelites had walked in a more-or-less straight line from their starting point in Egypt, to their finish line at the border of the Promised Land. How many miles do you think this would be? The distance is about 265 miles. 265 miles. By way of contrast, the distance from Pratt, Kansas to Overland Park is 262 miles.

So you might be scratching your head and wondering how this pilgrimage required forty years. You might have heard the joke that answers this question: Why did the Exodus take forty years? The Exodus took forty years because Moses and Aaron were in charge, and men never stop and ask for directions.

In fact, the Scriptures tell us that the Lord God was the reason that it took the Israelites forty years to cover this short distance. It was as a formative punishment for their many infidelities that the Lord made the Israelites to meander through the desert for forty years. By “formative punishment” I mean that this punishment was to foster virtues such as patience and trust in the Israelites. Nonetheless, today’s First Reading takes place at the end of their forty-year pilgrimage.

The entire Book of Deuteronomy takes place on this side of the Jordan River, before the Israelites conclude their Exodus by entering the Promised Land. However, the Lord had decided that Moses, as punishment for his infidelities while leading the Exodus—would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. So Moses is at the threshold of death when the First Reading takes place. But before he dies, Moses must carry out one last task from the Lord God. Moses must proclaim the Law that God had entrusted to His care on Mount Sinai, towards the beginning of the forty-year Exodus. One of the reasons for this proclamation is that many of those in the Israelite camp had been born during the Exodus, after the bestowal of the Law. So those young Israelites had not heard the original proclamation of the Law. That’s where the name of this book of the Bible comes from. The name “Deuteronomy” literally means “second law”: not in the sense of a different law, but a second public proclamation of the Law.

It’s within this frame of reference that Moses declares in the First Reading:

“Now, Israel, 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. In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God… you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.”

God is making clear through Moses that the Promised Land is theirs only on the condition that they neither subtract from nor add to God’s commands. The result for being unfaithful to God is clear in the person who is speaking. That is, Moses is a living example—or more accurately, a dying example—of what happens to those who are unfaithful to God. God in effect is saying, “If you are unfaithful to my commands, including adding to or taking away from them, you will end up like this Moses: outside the Promised Land, which is to be dead.”

Given all that, it might be easier to see why the scribes and Pharisees challenge Jesus in today’s Gospel. In fact, on the surface their question to Jesus seems fairly innocent: “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

In response, Jesus speaks harshly: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me….’ ”

Then Jesus summons the crowd and offers some context for His side of the conflict, declaring: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come… from within are what defile.”

So that’s the conflict in a nutshell: the scribes and Pharisees versus Jesus. What are you to make of this conflict? and how does their conflict relate to your own spiritual and moral life?
+ + +
It probably wouldn’t be a surprise to any of you that I would side with Jesus. But that doesn’t help us understand what Jesus is getting at, in speaking against the scribes and Pharisees.

We sometimes forget that Jesus wants all persons to be saved: that includes the scribes and the Pharisees. On Calvary, Jesus sacrificed His Body and Blood, soul and divinity for all mankind: not just for those who liked Jesus. Jesus gave up His very self in sacrifice on the Cross, so that each of the scribes and Pharisees might enter Heaven.

So why did Jesus speak so boldly against the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel passage? What motivated what He says here? Does that motive run contrary to His motive on the Cross, in dying for the scribes and Pharisees? Did Jesus say what He said in today’s Gospel passage simply in frustration? Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day?

The fact is, that to think that Jesus ever acted from a motive not integrated into His mission from His Father is to think that Jesus sinned. In fact, every single thought, word and action of Jesus on earth was integrated into the mission given Him by God the Father. That means that what He said in today’s Gospel passage was loving: was for the salvation of the scribes and Pharisees, if they would only accept Him at His Word, so to speak.

Still, that doesn’t get to the nub of the question. Why are the scribes and Pharisees wrong, when they seem to have the Book of Deuteronomy on their side? What is Jesus saying that the scribes and Pharisees need to change in order to follow Him? And do Jesus’ words against the scribes and Pharisees present a challenge to your spiritual and moral life?

The simplest way to get at the “course correction” Jesus is demanding is to notice the contrast that Jesus speaks about. He quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. Jesus contrasts “lips” and “hearts”: our outer self with its actions, and our inner life of motives.

But notice that for Jesus, it’s not lips versus hearts. The scribes and Pharisees have in fact set up opposition between them. But Jesus is pointing out that there is not meant to be opposition. What there is meant to be—what Jesus’ mission on earth is about—is the integration of lips and hearts. The scribes and the Pharisees, however, are content with just giving lip service to God. It’s within this mission of Jesus that He clarifies which human traditions and customs are in conformity with God’s Law.

But to illustrate what Jesus is preaching against, consider this thought experiment: You probably all know who Father Emil Kapaun is: priest of the Wichita Diocese, Korean War hero, and now a candidate for sainthood. Just imagine that Father Emil Kapaun had an evil identical twin. We’ll call him Edward. Edward went to the same schools as Emil, also was ordained, also joined the military, and also died in a POW camp. Furthermore, through some amazing feat of technology, there are two video recordings of their entire lives: 24/7, each and every day of their lives from their births to their deaths. Each of them did/performed/carried out the very same actions, every day of their lives. But when—at the same precise moment—they both died, Father Emil went to Heaven, while his evil twin went to the other place.

Is this scenario very likely? I mean: that someone would perform throughout his entire life actions that on the outside appear virtuous—indeed saintly—but on the inside are motivated by the evils that Jesus mentions at the end of today’s Gospel passage? Of course not: this is not likely at all. But this is possible, and Jesus is pointing at this possibility in today’s Gospel, because He sees it in the scribes and the Pharisees.

While it’s very unlikely that someone’s entire life would be split in two like this—lips professing good things, while the heart is motivated by evil things—it’s more than likely that such a split does occur in your life, and even more often in the lives of those of us who are like the scribes and Pharisees.

We’re very good at cultivating action in our country. In fact, we’re a nation of Marthas. We define success by the number of stacks of papers on our desks, and the number of miles on our odometers. Even in the Church, we measure involvement by the number of service hours our youth carry out, or the number of parish committees that adults sign up for. Unfortunately, busy-ness is not going to get you to Heaven.

Where is the heart? How do we cultivate our hearts? We’re very good at cultivating perpetual motion in our lives and in our parishes, but how do we cultivate the hearts that the scribes and Pharisees were so uninterested in? the hearts that Jesus insists must be the well-spring of all that we do? How can we be less like Martha and more like her sister Mary?

These are all important questions. At times, they’re difficult questions. But the single answer to each of these questions is the divine Person of Jesus Christ.