“When words of love are fleshed out”
by Fr Koenraad Van Gucht SDB
Our lives are awash with words. From our earliest moments, words are spoken to us: gentle words, soothing words, loving words. But wonderful as they may be, these lovely words are not enough for a newborn infant to thrive. To fully experience a Mother’s love, he or she needs to feel the warmth of her embrace, taste her nourishing milk, delight in the comfort of her care. When words of love are FLESHED out, the connection is made, the relationship sealed, the ‘I love you’ bit becomes true.
For us believers, God’s Word is a word that calls, comforts, nourishes. It is the Word made flesh that came to live among us that didn’t just TELL us but SHOWED us God’s immense love for us. It is the all-giving love of Jesus Christ that sealed God’s relationship of love with us, the people of God.
That same Jesus reminds us today that we too are bound by our word. He reprimands those who only pay lip-service to God while their hearts are far away. St James reminds us that we must DO what the word tells us, and not just listen to it.
The church in Ireland is still basking in the after-glow of the visit of Pope Francis last weekend. People listened attentively to every word he had to say. Many received him into their hearts because they have come to know that his are not hollow words or empty gestures. His faith spills over into a life committed to reaching out to those who are hurting, those on the margins, those who have lost heart. THAT’S what inspires us. THAT’S what convinces us that he’s for real!
Even though sometimes we may be ‘lost for words’, by and large uttering words or listening to them is the easy bit. Living up to them is the challenge. When word and deed go hand in hand, integrity happens. Our liturgies too are full of words: too many I sometimes feel. And while more than ever it’s vital not to lose this language of faith, it only rings true if it’s translated into a language of love-in-action.
Perhaps you’ve heard people say, ‘I believe, but I don’t practice.’ I’m sure that can be interpreted in many ways, but if my believing is to be real, it has to spill over into practice: acting justly, loving tenderly and walking humbly with our God.
Scripture readings: Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
Reflections and Prayers by Fr Jack Finnegan SDB
1st Reading – Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8
Moses said to the people: ‘Now, Israel, take notice of the laws and customs that I teach you today, and observe them, that you may have life and may enter and take possession of the land that the Lord the God of your fathers is giving you. You must add nothing to what I command you, and take nothing from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God just as I lay them down for you. Keep them, observe them, and they will demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding. When they come to know of all these laws they will exclaim, “No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation.” And indeed, what great nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? And what great nation is there that has laws and customs to match this whole Law that I put before you today?’
Our first reading today comes from the introduction to the Covenant Law given by Moses to the people before they entered the Promised Land. According to scholars, the prohibition not to add or subtract anything from the Law was common in legal codes of the time. The people are reminded that the Law is the signpost to wise and intelligent living, covenant living, a way of life that recognises God’s closeness to all who seek the way to life to the full. These lines from Deuteronomy also help us to understand and discern the distinction made by Jesus in today’s gospel between the commandments of God and human traditions. Human traditions change. God’s living word endures forever. Are we ready to live our covenant with God in ways that consciously seek to avoid distorting God’s Word for purely selfish motives? Especially at difficult moments, do we remind ourselves that loving worship of God and loving obedience to God go hand in hand?
LORD, Adonai, everything in the cosmos knows its place: every moon, every sun, every galaxy. All is moving towards its destiny in your loving smile. Help us understand our place in your presence. Help us walk in your loving ways. Help us recognise and follow your signposts to wise and meaningful living. Let you grace inspire us. Let your Spirit lead us in ways that lead to fullness of life. May we never distort your word for selfish reasons or to manipulate or control others. May we live in the knowledge that loving worship and loving obedience of you always go hand in hand. May we live in covenant fidelity with you all our days, singing songs of grateful praise. Now and forever. Amen.
Psalm 15 is one of the entry psalms sung by pilgrims as they crossed the threshold of the Temple. The psalm offers us a wonderful picture of closeness and nearness to God. What kind of life prepares us for life with God? Evil does not abide with God, only goodness. Sit for some moments with the description of the true pilgrim that unfolds in our psalm: a person of justice, sincerity, and integrity, a person of true generosity, whose heart, speech and deeds are one with God, whose hands and mind are free of blood, violence, slander and revenge. This is the description of someone who is whole and complete, someone who is aligned with God and willingly fulfils God’s expectations. Are we open to change for the better? Are we ready to live from deep springs of compassion? Do we understand the practical challenge of holiness?
LORD, Adonai, be near! Draw us close! Let us worship you on holy ground! You want us to be bearers of light because dark ways cannot abide your presence! Help us walk in your light! Liberate us! Set us free from works of darkness, works that wound and injure others! Set us free for works of compassion, works of truth and works of justice! Free our hands from violence, our lips from vengeful words! Make us people of justice, people of sincerity and integrity, people of true generosity, whose hearts, speech and deeds speak loudly of your presence and your way. Forgive our sins. Grace us to take responsibility for our personal and communal journeys to wholeness. May we be springs of compassion, fountains of justice! Now and forever. Amen.
2nd Reading – James 1:17-18,21-22,27
It is all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given us from above; it comes down from the Father of all light; with him there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow of a change. By his own choice he made us his children by the message of the truth so that we should be a sort of first-fruits of all that he had created.
Accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls. But you must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.
Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.
Over the next few weeks we undertake a continuous reading from St James who describes himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we shall see, the Letter enshrines much wisdom teaching. Today, we read the second exhortation, the call to be doers and not just hearers of the word first implanted in us by baptism. Our call is to be first fruits of the living word, witnesses to the Father of Lights. The challenge before each one of us who call ourselves Christian is to constantly receive God’s word as new, to live it afresh and actively in all the changing circumstances of our daily lives. God’s word is ever and always a compassionate word, a word of mercy and a word of challenge. Can we live the challenge while living the compassion? Remember: sin is forgiven but the Christian self remains a work in progress.
Lord Jesus, let the word the Spirit planted in us come alive! Let it blossom deep in our hearts! Make us a kind of first fruits! May the bright grace coming down on us from the Father of Lights drive every shadow away! We welcome your living word! We welcome your gift of life! We welcome your gift of light! We welcome your gifts of compassion! May we serve the poor wherever we meet them. May we serve the wounded, listening attentively! May we find ways to help the lost, the lonely, the jobless and the homeless! May we care for orphans and widows in their affliction and so serve you who served us all. Now and forever. Amen.
Gospel Reading – Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus, and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture:
This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.
You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.’ He called the people to him again and said, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.’
Our gospel passage today begins with an introduction on Jewish practices for Mark’s gentile audience. Note also that the quotation from Isaiah 29:13 comes from the Greek translation familiar to gentile Christians rather than the Hebrew familiar to Jesus and the first disciples. We then encounter one of several controversies Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, this one focussed on traditional purification rituals. And this is where the link to the first reading comes to the fore: You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition. Unfortunately, phariseeism is a risk for every believer, something that happens every time we turn the gospel into a list of dos and don’ts and judge people who in our view do not keep the rules. Look at the state of the Church in Ireland and elsewhere for a reality check. We all hold onto patterns, processes, institutions and behaviours that have nothing to do with the gospel. Mark then offers us a parable about the key significance of the inner life. It is what is in the heart that counts, and it is the heart that determines our Christian and human integrity. We forget that the inner life becomes real though concrete gestures grounded in love, empathy, generosity and compassion. It can also reveal the hard heart, the closed mind, the rigid attitude, and the victory of darkness. Where do we stand when radical change is needed? Jesus is always doing something new. Are we truly open to his loving action?
Lord Jesus, let our hearts draw ever closer to you day by day! May our hearts be full of your life-giving presence! May our souls be full of your light! May we become truly one with you! Be with us in all we do! May all we do give living testimony to your love and compassion! Show us how to reach out to all in need regardless of how we feel in the moment: may we never be too busy or too tired to listen! Help us walk with you along our pilgrim way! Help us to be your true disciples, seeking to notice and let go of the false self, and taking responsibility for our inner lives! May we never become prisoners of empty ritual but seek ever and always to be among those who worship in spirit and in truth. Now and forever. Amen.
It might seem at first that today’s gospel has very little to say to us. The people of Jesus’ time were concerned about preserving their ancient customs of washing hands and utensils before eating. This seems to have nothing to do with us and our problems today. We find it hard to understand why Jesus wasted his time on such seemingly insignificant questions. If we had to take sides in the discussion, we would certainly agree with those well-mannered Pharisees who insisted on something as obvious as washing your hands before eating. It is just good manners, but we would be missing the point of this gospel passage if we were to reduce it to a simple matter of politeness. Jesus did not engage in controversy with the Pharisees simply to excuse his disciples from the rules of polite behaviour. Properly understood, his words are an urgent call to conversion also for us.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
After he was rejected by the people of his own town (Mk 6, 1-6), Jesus began evangelizing the people of Gennesaret. He sent out his disciples for the first time (Mk 6, 7-13), and they worked wonders (Mk 6, 30-44.45-53), enjoying unprecedented success (Mk 6, 54-56). Some scribes came from Jerusalem and criticised the disciples (Mk 7, 2) because they ate without observing the traditional rules and customs (Mk 7, 5). The evangelist sees the need to explain the problem to his readers who are unfamiliar with the issue (Mk 7, 3-4).
Jesus’ reply is somewhat condensed in the liturgical version we read today. He focuses not on the rules that govern eating, nor on ritual purity, but on the real meaning of purity. Jesus changes the discussion from the need to preserve external, visible purity to the need for purity of heart.
His argument is a good one. He quotes Isaiah and goes beyond the matter under discussion, saying that the practice of washing hands and utensils before eating is an empty gesture, without heart, like mere words without obedience. Certainly the Pharisees, his first listeners, were taken by surprise and felt they were being harshly judged (Mk 7, 7-7). Jesus later clarifies but adds a more serious charge. They put aside God’s law to cling to human traditions (Mk 7, 8). Such a severe judgment is, at first sight, far removed from the matter being discussed, and requires further explanation, which Jesus directs, not just to his critics, but to all the people gathered there. What he says is not a matter of argument, but genuine teaching to be accepted in the heart. Nothing makes a person impure. It is the person himself or herself that makes things impure. The person must be on guard, because it is in the heart that impurity arises (Mk 7, 14 -15.23). People must purify their hearts, not their hands.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
It is hard for us to understand the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, especially if we forget the importance of ritual purity in the culture and worship of the time. Ritual impurity did not allow access to God and led to social exclusion. Jesus rejected this system, not because it was harmful in itself, but because in practice it excused people from internal personal obedience to God. Following traditions and social customs that do not touch the heart is the surest way to detach the heart from God. Insisting on what is written, makes it impossible to search for God’s will.
Jesus’ criticism is devastating and, sadly, is relevant in our own day. God demands purity in the intimacy of the heart, for it is there that evil is born. His disciples are not to observe customs and practices that do not foster purity of heart, whatever others may think of them. They should not be concerned with what others think of them, but what God thinks. Holding fast to what has always been done is not a valid excuse for failing to do what God wants of us here and now.
The Pharisees were not known for their delicate manners but as serious and devout believers. They wanted to live their relationship with God in such a complete and continuous way that they would always be in a fit state to enter into communion with him. They tried to live their whole lives as if they were in the temple. This meant living always in a state of purity which they did not want to lose, and to reach that purity they were ready to submit to an infinity of precepts.
If they did not succeed in observing these precepts all the time, they had to recover that external purity, and for this they depended on specific customs and practices. It was so important for them to remain in the presence of God that they had multiplied the rules. Their intentions could not have been better. They wanted to dedicate their whole lives to God, and all their daily activity from dawn to dusk. This demanded the observance of a strict and wide-ranging religious discipline. Among all these precepts there were those that referred to food. They believed that it was possible in certain conditions to give praise to God also while eating.
For them it was unthinkable that religious people, as Jesus and his disciples claimed to be, should violate these norms by eating without washing their hands. In defence of his disciples, Jesus accused the critics. What the disicples are doing is not wrong. They do it in order to be free for something better. The Pharisees honour God with their lips but their hearts are far from God’s love. Their worship is empty of content because they do not submit their lives to God’s law. With the best will, the Pharisees thought they were pleasing God by keeping their hands clean, but attached less importance to cleanness of heart.
They excused themselves from obedience to God by following old ways and ancient norms. They attached too much value to custom, and to what had always been done, and not enough importance to doing God’s will. Following the traditions of the elders meant, in this case, leaving aside God’s will. Like pious people of every age, the Pharisees were good intelligent people. By staying faithful to what has always been done, we don’t need to bother trying to discover what God wants of us at any moment. Habit excuses us from the task of discerning what God wants of us here and now. Rules, whether ancient or modern, are clear and precise, and known to the whole world.
Sticking to the rules means there is little need for discernment. Good Pharisees were sincere in their piety, as we are, but that kind of piety transforms us into lazy servants of our God. We do not need to make an effort to discover what God wants of us, or how he wants us to serve him better. We take refuge instead in what we believe God has asked of us, or in how others serve God. Jesus strongly criticized this illusion of many devout people. Clinging to traditions may ensure clean hands but does nothing to change the heart. It is a hypocritical way of serving God who made both hands and heart. Jesus insists on purity in the heart where evil is conceived, and not just in the hands where it is delivered. He wants cleanness at the root and not just in the means. He values purity of heart more than clean hands
It is not very difficult, therefore, to see what Jesus was saying to us when he defended his disciples with their unwashed hands. He is certainly not just talking about good manners. Being a Christian is much more than manners or politeness. Jesus certainly does not confuse faith in God with polite behaviour, as many who are regarded as good Christians do, and he does not confuse worship of God with the culture of our times. His objective is not to teach good manners to these “unclean” disciples. We, especially if we are older Christians, born into a Christian society that existed in the past, are inclined to confuse the observance of pious customs with the worship of God. We think that what was good in the past is good forever. We think that if we are faithful to the traditions of the past, we are being faithful to ourselves and to God.
We are not very different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Would that we were even as devout as they were! It is very easy to feel good just because we behave well, or, better still, just because we do nothing wrong. We think that if our hands are clean, or if others do not see that they are dirty, then our hearts are also clean. Only God can see into the heart. We think we are better than others, only because we think they are worse than we are. If we continue to be concerned with external cleanness, we will not be serious about purifying our hearts. Jesus reminds us today that God is not interested in how we appear to others. God is concerned with what is in our hearts. He does not look to see if we do what has always been done. What God wants of us is to seek his will and accept it with all our hearts.
We should not forget that the teaching of Jesus led him into conflict with the authorities in Jerusalem and the pious people of his time. It is quite clear that his intention was not just to defend his disciples but to teach us the meaning of true purity for believers which enables them to enter into relationship with God. It may not be hygienic, but Jesus’ disciples can eat even with unwashed hands, provided they keep their hearts pure for God.
Those who follow the teaching of Jesus direct all their efforts to keeping their hearts pure, because it is in the heart that evil and malice are born. The heart is the source of all sin. They are more concerned with the evil that afflicts the world and less worried about getting their hands soiled in the world. As long as evil does not enter the heart or come from the heart, the disciple of Jesus is free from observance of external norms. Christ does not demand that his disciples appear good, provided they try to keep their hearts pure.
Anyone who lives by the teaching of Jesus is exempt from all traditions and customs, however old or valid they may be. He is excused, not because he despises customs and traditions, but because he does not put so much value on them that he forgets that God alone is the law of life. Jesus has freed his disciples from all that does not come from the heart. Nothing is worthy of obedience if it is only a matter of appearance and does not purify the heart. Jesus wants, above all, to free our hearts from evil so that God alone can occupy them. Then everything that comes from the heart will be good, and our hands will be pure, even if sometimes they happen to be dirty. We should not forget that only the pure of heart will see God (Mt 5, 8).