HOMILY SUNDAY 22-B
Compassion Trumps Law
(Dt 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
After I was ordained a priest in 1974, I did a pastoral year out of Edmonton. Towards the end of that year, while I was waiting for my obedience from Rome, I applied to go to the Holy Land with a group from Newman Theological College. I had the time, it was not that expensive, would be paid by my parents and what an opportunity to enrich my ministry as a young priest. However, the Oblates at that time had a rule we were not to make any overseas trip until after 25 years of ordination, so I was refused. I could hardly believe the Oblate leadership at that time would go by outdated rules rather than see the value of such a trip. That, I believe, was my first real run-in with the shadow side of life lived only by the rules.
I could identify with the frustration Jesus feels in today’s gospel, as he has a run-in with the religious authorities who could only see life through the lens of human tradition and man-made rules. We are invited today to live a religion from the heart that puts compassion before regulations.
There is an interrelated progression throughout the readings for today bearing out this focus on love rather than duty. In the first reading, we are told diligent obedience to the commandment of God to love leads to a good life of justice, closeness to God and true worship.
In the gospel, we see abandoning that commandment of God to love, and clinging to human traditions instead, leads to legalism and a fixation on superficial rules and regulations. The end result, as Jesus puts it, is vain worship, not true worship.
Jesus goes on to state categorically true religion, religion from the heart, deals with sins, here listed as murder, fornication, theft, wicked actions, slander, folly and deceit. The implication is repentance for these actions and receiving forgiveness from them is much more important than focusing on the keeping of ritual actions.
But Jesus does not stop there. He continues to explain true religion, religion from the heart goes deeper into the causes of sin and deals with our sinfulness (that which makes us sin), our defects of character, here listed as avarice, licentiousness, envy and false pride. These roots of our sinful actions are taken away through healing accomplished by humble awareness and prayer of faith.
The second reading then presents us with a model of religion based on love, caring and holiness of life. That is the ideal Jesus is seeking from those who would follow him, and not a dependence on a pseudo-holiness coming from the keeping of ritual actions and prescriptions for cleanliness that are nice but have little to do with the essence of love and genuine caring for others.
During my third year of university, I was accepted into Up With People, an international singing group of young people travelling the world promoting peace and harmony among nations through the gift of music. The group had three basic rules: no smoking, drinking or dating. After about a month after joining, a group of us went to a restaurant/bar in a particular city for a coke. On the way we helped a woman who was struggling in a wheel chair. We invited her to join us and had a great time.
At rehearsal some weeks later, I received a letter from her during a rehearsal break on stage, thanking me for the friendship we had extended to her. A picture of her fell out of the envelope when I opened it. A cast member, noticing this, told me she had heard we were in some kind of trouble because we had broken the rules in that particular city. I was shocked and realized, perhaps for the first time for me personally, how risky it is to base one’s life only on superficial rules and regulations so easily abused and misconstrued.
The message from today’s readings is clear. Let us live lives of genuine, true religion from the heart seeking only to do God’s will, to love God with our whole being and to love all others as Jesus himself has loved us.
The Eucharist is no mere superficial ritual action. It is a making present of the total loving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for us. Ransomed, forgiven and healed, we who participate are empowered to go out and do the same by loving as he loved us.
So, let us leave here committed to living out a religion from the heart, seeking only to fulfill the greatest commandment of all, the commandment to love that puts compassion before regulations.