Deacon Cornell’s Homily


Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


August 30-31, 2003 Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

There was a deacon preaching on the Gospel passage we just heard, and he was being quite arrogant, chastising the assembly for only going through the motions without really understanding what religion is all about. After a good 15 minutes of chewing them out, he came to his main point by asking the question, “Does any one know why people call me a Christian?” After a few minutes of uneasy silence, a little boy halfway back timidly raised his hand and offered, “Because they don’t know you that well?”

A lot of people would like to think that Jesus is attacking any kind of organized religion or religious ritual in the Gospel passage we just heard. But as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels, he did not come to do away with the Law but to fulfill it.

The main thrust of what Jesus is chewing out the Pharisees for is focusing on the rules without thinking about their intent. To be fair, organized religion, whether the Jewish establishment in the time of Jesus, or the Catholic Church here in the 21st Century, is a fitting target for what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. It is a human trait that we tend to lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in the details.

In the grand scheme of things, the laws of God, as revealed in Scripture are a gift from God to lift us up and free us. They are not laws that bind us and diminish us. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses explain to the people that the law of God enhances their reputation among the nations. Take the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath. By requiring one day of the week when no work was to be done, the Israelites demonstrated that they were a free people. Only free people could take a day off. But over time, people started to see the prohibition of work on Sunday as a restriction, something that kept them from making money. And so finally they rebelled against that misunderstood commandment, and declared that Sunday should be just like any other day, when you could work and shop and do what you could any other day. And suddenly, they found themselves no longer free. Sound familiar?

The late Anthony DeMello tells the story of the head monk at a Buddhist monastery who had a cat. Because the cat used to wander into the temple and distract the monks as they were trying to meditate, he started tying the cat up to the altar during meditation time. After a long time, the head monk died and the monks continued to tie up his cat. When the cat died, there were almost no monks left who remembered why the cat had been tied up, and assuming it was part of the ritual, went and got another cat to tie to the altar. After many generations, tying a cat to the altar became a required part of the mediation ritual.

Some people would argue that Jesus never established a church structure and so that is not part of his plan. But Jesus did intend for the Good News to be spread from east to west, and until the end of time. That cannot happen without structure. If it were not for the structure and rules of the Church over the centuries, we would probably not even have the scriptures to proclaim the good new to us. We might not even have a culture that can read and write and do science.

One could construct a fairly strong case that the Catholic Church, with all its rules and regulations, is an obstacle, keeping people from entering into a loving relationship with God, rather than a means for bringing people to God. But when we examine that argument, I think we would find that a lot of the responsibility lies with us, rather than just with the hierarchy. If, like the Pharisees, we look only at the details of the rules and regulations but forget the purpose behind them, we start using them to burden people rather than free them

One of the ways that we ensure that we are doers of the word, as James exhorts us in that second reading, is to make sure that we understand how the laws and the rituals of the Church intend to bring us into closer communion with God. Take coming to Mass on Sunday. The Church says we must come to Mass once a week. If we think that all religion is about is being good and getting to heaven, the rule about having to go to Mass once a week seems pretty arbitrary. But if we understand that our baptism calls us, individually and more importantly as a community, to be the Body of Christ bringing God’s salvation to this world, it takes on a whole different meaning. We cannot be the Body of Christ in isolation. Praying and fasting are worthless in themselves. God’s plan is for the Body of Christ to care for the orphans and widows and the hungry and the homeless in their affliction. It is to show God’s love for the world by sharing the abundance he has gifted us with. As we look around this world, this country, this state, even this town, we quickly realize that no one or two people can do this by themselves. We must be formed into a larger community to tackle the problems of hunger and injustice. So we come together each Sunday to share in the Body and Blood of Christ so that we might be formed more firmly into the Body of Christ that goes out into the world to bring God’s love there.

A few years ago, we were visiting my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and we were sitting around the kitchen table talking about getting dressed up for Church. My niece who was about 17 or 18 at the time, said, “I don’t see why I have to get dressed up for church. God loves me no matter how I dress.” Ever hear that one. I replied that this is true, but then I asked her if she would get dressed up for a date with a boy that she really liked. She said, “Of course.” “But wouldn’t he like you no matter how you dressed? If he didn’t maybe he really wasn’t someone you should be dating.” The reason that she would dress up for the date, and the reason we should dress up for church is for us, not for the other or even for God. It is so that we remember how important it is that we follow the call we were given at baptism to bring salvation to the world.

I pray that we do not become like the Pharisees who lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees, or even worse, get turned off by the lack of understanding and walk away from our roles in God’s plan for salvation. Let us instead enter into our rituals and our law with growing understanding of the wisdom and intelligence God provides through them. Then from our hearts will come pure thoughts, chastity, charity, and justice that leads to peace.

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