The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Deut 4:1-2,6-8  +  Jas 1:17-18,21-22,27  +  Mk 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
September 2, 2018

So the Pharisees and scribes questioned Him….

On Calvary, Jesus sacrificed His Body and Blood, soul and divinity for all mankind:  not just for those who liked Him.  This means that Jesus gave up His very self in sacrifice on the Cross in order 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?  Why are the scribes and Pharisees wrong, when they seem to have the Book of Deuteronomy on their side?  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.

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.  But before he dies, Moses must proclaim the Law that God had entrusted to His care on Mount Sinai towards the beginning of the forty-year Exodus.

It’s in this setting that Moses in today’s First Reading makes clear that the Promised Land is Israel’s only on the condition that its people 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, which includes adding to or taking away from them, you will end up like this Moses:  outside the Promised Land, which is to be dead.”

Given this, how ought we understand Jesus saying that the scribes and Pharisees need to change in order to follow Him?  More to the point, do Jesus’ words against the scribes and Pharisees present a challenge to your own 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” [Isaiah 29:13].  Jesus contrasts “lips” and “hearts”:  one’s outer self with its actions, and one’s inner life of motives.

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

We’re very good at cultivating action in our country.  In fact, we’re a nation of Marthas.  We define success by how many stacks of papers are on our desks, and the number of miles on our odometers.  But 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?  How do we cultivate our hearts as 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.