Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 15:2-5
Second Reading: Letter of St. James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Gospel: According to St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In his letter to the early Christian community, St. James warns them that they are to live the Word as given by God, without any human substitutions, or deletions, or modifications.
“With (God) there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.”
Jesus is the Incarnate, the ‘made-flesh,’ Word of God and therefore we have in Him all that we need in order to avail ourselves of the “all good giving” and “perfect gift from above.”
So, what does this Incarnate Word of God tell us about how to live our lives, and what do his precursors and followers have to say on the topic?
The Deuteronomist says that all the nations will say that “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” This will be their response to the Law of God by which the Israelites live. Too often we divide the Old and New Testament understandings of God not by the fuller revelation brought into the world by Jesus, but by the erroneous belief that the Old Law and the New Law are unrelated – one having been created by a judgmental deity and the other by a loving one.
The words of the Psalmist, possibly King David himself, reveal a loving and caring God, a God concerned for the least among us, but also for the sinner. Today’s psalm focuses on this concern as it relates to justice. The response hammers home the belief that if we want to live in the presence of the Lord we must do justice. Similarly St. James warns his audience that they can’t just be hearers of the Word, they must do the Word if they are not to be deluding themselves into believing that they follow Jesus.
So, what are the Old Testament acts of justice that the Psalmist focuses on? Ultimately they concern how we treat those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist is worried for those who are economically vulnerable, those who are at the mercy of money lenders who can tie the needy to loans for the rest of their lives through usury, the unjust charging of interest on a loan. He is also worried about those who are falsely charged with crimes, those who are at the mercy of the wealthy who can influence judges through bribes.
Interestingly, the statements by the Psalmist mention – but do not focus on – the victims of these situations. He is concerned with the man who lends money usuriously and who accepts bribes. The unjust treatment of the vulnerable is important, but the eternal destiny of a soul – even the soul of the perpetrator of injustice – is also important. James reiterates this thought when he concludes that anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ is to “keep oneself unstained by the world.”
This helps us to place the comments of Jesus in the proper context. Often, this reading from St. Mark is used against Catholics. The leaders of the Reformation felt that the Catholic Church had become like the Pharisees – disregarding the commandments of God while clinging to human traditions.
Yet the real meaning of what Jesus said was not related to any fear that he had of His Church falling away from the essential truths of His message. It was not so much an institutional warning as it was a personal one. Each person who claims to be a follower of Jesus needs to stay always in touch with the core of His message – be ye like little children (“unstained by the world”) if you want to enter the Kingdom. The litany of sins that Jesus warns his followers about would never be on the minds of innocent children, let alone in their hearts. We adults teach them about arrogance, deceit, lust and the rest – they are not born with them.
Jesus is upset with the Pharisees for the same reason that G.K. Chesterton had no use for the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Chesterton said that whoever came up with that phrase must have been wealthy since it is the poor who are generally unclean: not because of a lack of virtue, but because of a lack of soap and clean water. My guess is that there were a number of saints who, because of their desire to be with God’s poor, did not give off the fragrance of a rose garden. As Chesterton also said, it is the evil among us who need to be clean so as not to appear evil.
Neither Jesus nor Chesterton was suggesting that we eschew soap as a sign of sanctity. What they were suggesting was that we must, as St. James points out, be doers and not just hearers of the Word. When we are busy ‘doing the Word’ we get our hands dirty and put our bodies in a position where soap becomes necessary, and so ironically it is this ‘doing the dirty work’ for those in need that goes a long way to keeping us unstained by the world.