The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

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 29, 2021

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 so that each scribe and Pharisee 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.  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 lips and hearts.  Jesus is pointing out that there’s not meant to be opposition.  Lips and hearts are meant to be integrated.  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.

How, then, can we make certain that, unlike the Scribes and Pharisees, our lips and hearts—our good works and faith—are thoroughly integrated?  The answer starts in what might seem an unlikely place:  silence.  St. James in the Second Reading sets the stage for this answer.

St. James invites us to “[h]umbly welcome the word”.  This “word”, of course, is Christ [see John 1:1].  The best start for humbly welcoming this word is silence.  Yet the silence needed here is not just a lack of audible noise.

Internal silence is needed.  Some people can very easily pray for an hour surrounded by external silence, yet the whole time they’re stuffing human words into their hearts, minds, and souls by reading or carrying on an internal monologue.  These human words exclude the divine word.

The divine “word”, who became flesh and dwelt among us [see John 1:14], is the measure—the standard—against which every person will be judged.  The divine Word made Flesh judges each human person, not only scribes and Pharisees.  In prayer we have to dispose ourselves by silence and patience to hearing this divine Word.  We must not only allow Him to speak to us, but also to judge the works of our lips and hearts.