|Date:||August 28-29, 2021, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B|
For people who like to take scripture passages out of context, today's Gospel is perfect for arguing that Jesus was against any rules or structure in religion. Of course that would be wrong. The Gospels are very clear that Jesus was an observant Jew, following the rituals and customs of the Jewish religion. Jesus is calling the Pharisees to task because they often miss the point behind a particular rule or ritual or commandment. And to be honest, organized religion, even Catholicism in our day, is a often a fair target of what Jesus is saying in today's Gospel because it can easily lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in the detail.
As we see from the first reading from Deuteronomy, the law of God, as revealed in Scripture is a gift from God to lift us up and free us. The commandments are not laws that bind us and diminish us. In that passage, 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. Maybe a better way to say that is by keeping holy the Sabbath, the Israelites reminded themselves that they were a free people. But over time, people started to see the prohibition of work on the Sabbath as a restriction, something that kept them from making money. And so finally they rebelled against that misunderstood commandment, and declared that the Sabbath 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?
So while some people would argue that Jesus never established a church structure and so that is not part of his plan, the fact is that Jesus commanded his disciples to spread the Gospel to all nations 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 as we know it today. But history has proven that we humans can quickly forget the purpose behind the rules and commandments and rituals of our Catholic religion, and like the Pharisees, use 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 free us and support us by bringing us into closer communion with God. Take coming to Mass on Sunday. The Church says we must participate in the celebration of the Eucharist 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. Just praying and fasting , and even obeying the commandments is not enough. God's plan is for the Body of Christ to care for the orphans and widows and the hungry and the homeless and the marginalized 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 who goes out into the world to bring God's love there.
A number of 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 mission we were given at baptism to bring salvation to the world.
So I pray that we don't lose sight of the big picture of what the Catholic faith is about, and let ourselves get turned away from our call by that lack of understanding. Instead, let us learn what the Church is teaching us through our rituals, our commandments, our structure. One good way to do that is to experience one of our upcoming Alpha sessions. Then we can enter into those practices with wisdom and intelligence so that from our hearts will come pure thoughts, chastity, charity, and above all, justice that leads to peace.