22nd Sunday O T Year B – 2015 Dt.4:1-2, 6-9 / Jas.1:17-27 / Mk.7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A man and a lady enter a ‘to go’ restaurant and the man orders two fried chicken dinners. The girl at the counter mistakenly gives him a bag of money, the entire day’s proceeds, instead of fried chicken. The man and woman drive to their picnic site and sit down to enjoy their chicken dinner. To their surprise, they discover that it is a bag of money, totaling almost $1,000.
They put the money back in the bag, drive back to the restaurant and return the money bag to the restaurant manager. The manger is overwhelmed. He declares the man a hero and a saint. He goes to call the local press to put the story and the man’s picture in the local newspaper. “You’re the most honest man in the whole world,” says the manager.
But the man would not let him call the press. Instead he leans closer and whispers in the ears of the manager, “You see, the woman I’m with is not my wife…she’s uh, somebody else’s wife.” The man might well be a hero, but he’s no saint.
As James tells us in today’s second reading, true Christian holiness has as much to do with doing good to others as it has with keeping ourselves pure. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas.1:27). The man scores high on honesty but very low on purity.
Majority of Christians in our churches belong to one of two camps. Either they are people, like the man in the story, who score high mark in their commitment to practical justice and fairness but low in self-discipline or they are people who score high in self-discipline but low in practical commitment to justice and fairness.
Apostle James teaches us that a Christian must score high marks in both practical concern for the welfare of others and self-mastery in order to be truly holy and acceptable before God. For the next four Sundays we shall be reading from the Letter of James, as he leads us to understand the importance of practical Christianity, that faith without good works is dead.
Apostle James makes two important points in today’s reading. He teaches the importance of faith in action, and he defines for us what true devotion is. True devotion is not a matter of hearing good preaching and celebrating inspiring liturgies. Good preaching and inspiring liturgies are wonderful. Yet the litmus test of true devotion remains how we live out the word of God that we hear.
St. James defines true religion as keeping the word of God and doing His will by helping the needy, the poor and the weak in the community. He challenges us to become doers of the word, not merely hearers. “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (Jas.1;27)
Today’s readings explain what true religion is. It is not simply a scrupulous, external observance of rules, laws, traditions and rituals. It is a loving, obedient relationship with God expressed in obeying His Commandments, worshipping Him, recognizing His presence in other human beings and rendering them loving and humble service.
Prayers, rituals, Sacraments and religious practices only help us to practice this true religion in our daily lives. In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes true religion as serving God and all His children with a pure and holy heart.
Two monks, Brother Francis and an elder monk, are walking down a muddy road on a rainy day. They came upon a lovely young girl dressed in fine silk, who was afraid to cross because of the flood and the mud. “Come on, girl,” said Brother Francis. And he picked her up in his strong arms, and carried her across the river.
The two monks walked on in silence till they reached the monastery. Then the elder monk couldn’t bear it any longer. “Monks shouldn’t go near young girls,” he said, “certainly not beautiful ones like that one! Why did you do it?” “Dear brother,” said Brother Francis, “I put the girl down by the river bank, but you have brought her into the monastery.”
In these two monks we see the two often conflicting approaches to Christian spirituality, namely, avoidance and involvement. The spirituality of avoidance emphasizes the devout fulfilment of pious religious obligations, and shuns away from those regarded as sinners for fear of being contaminated by them. It aims at keeping the believer unstained by the world, not at changing the world or making a difference.
The spirituality of involvement, on the other hand, emphasizes active solidarity with sinners, who are often perceived as the untouchables of the world. It does not shun but extends a helping hand to them, believing that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Balance in Christian spirituality consists in reconciling these two tendencies and bringing them into harmony. As St James tells us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress [involvement], and to keep oneself unstained by the world [avoidance].”
In today’s gospel the Pharisees and the scribes speak for the spirituality of avoidance. Their focus is on ritual observances. Today we hear clearly in the gospel that it is the spirit of the law of God that is important.
What the Pharisees lacked in spectacular fashion was any kind of interiority or depth; their minds were turned outwards, to rules and casuistry. What matters, Jesus said, is not what goes into a person from the outside, but what comes out from the inside.
Religion is not about things, it is about us! It is about the kind of response we make to the world, to others, and to God. It is about whether that wonderful ‘chemistry’ of the Gospel is happening in us: the kind of ‘chemistry’ that can turn bad stuff into good, curses into blessings, suffering into prayer. The spirit of faith is hard to keep in sight at all times, yet it is meant for all times.
It is the most sublime wisdom, yet it is meant to be very practical and not just a way of thinking. One way to make these ends meet is to identify religion with a few very visible practices. This is what the Pharisees and others did in the time of Jesus, and it is a constant temptation for us.
Let us accept the challenge to become hearers and doers of God’s word as St. James instructs us. Let us ask ourselves how the Sunday or daily readings are affecting or changing our lives. That will show us whether we are being attentive listeners to, and doers of, God’s word.
We become more fully Jesus’ family members, only when we consistently “hear the word of God and do it.” When we receive Jesus in Holy Communion today, let us ask him for the grace to become the doers of his word as he was the doer of his Fathers’ will. Amen.