Sunday Sermon for august 29, 2021, the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary time Year B
Deut 4:1-2,6-8; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 171-8, 14-15, 21-23
In the first reading today, Moses tells the people of Israel to be sure to follow the commandments of the Lord exactly and, by doing so, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the nations. Of course, the first question we must ask is: if observing the commandments of God demonstrates wisdom and intelligence, what does a failure to live according the the ways of God demonstrate?
When we consider the precepts imposed on the Jewish people, we must remember that many of the laws were added because of the disobedience of the people. Since everything is contained in the law that commands us to love God and neighbor, nothing more needs to be said. However, when people refuse to love or want to redefine what love is, the intention of the lawgiver must be clarified. Being human, the Jewish people liked to make God’s Word say what they wanted it to say; for this reason God added new precepts to make clear His intention.
The biggest problem with a multiplicity of laws or commandments is that following the letter of the law can become the main focus of the practice of religion. Catholics fall into the same trap as the Jews have over the centuries: we give God lip service while our hearts are far from Him. If all we are doing is following rules, we are failing to love Him. A trained animal can do just as much so, while we certainly want to do what our Lord has asked us to do, we must also do it for the right reason.
We see this same point in the second reading where St. James tells us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. If we do not carry out the commandments of God, St. James tells us we are deluding ourselves. This could sound like the point I made above is not correct, and that all we need to do is follow the rules. Thankfully, St. James must have anticipated this and tells us that true religion is found in caring for widows and orphans in their need and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
In other words, it comes down to loving God and loving neighbor. If we simply follow the rules, we can be robotic in our practice of the Faith, but then give into any vices that are not explicitly forbidden. If we are going to keep ourselves unstained by the world, it means we must keep our focus on God, making sure that our relationship with Him is growing. It is only by drawing nearer to God that we can be assured that we will not be drawn by the allurement of the world.
Moses makes this point clear when he asks the people of Israel (after telling the people about observing the commandments of God) “What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon Him?” God is close to us because He loves us; we will be close to Him only when we are loving Him. Just going through the motions or just practicing external observance of the commandments will not bring us close to God In fact, what that can do is cause us to think we have earned or deserved to be rewarded by God for what we have done.
Love does not seek to be rewarded. In fact, the fulfillment that comes from love is found in the giving of one’s self, not in receiving from the other. God loves us, so He is already close to us and prepared to give us everything. However, the greatest gift we can receive is not the various spiritual and material gifts God gives, but God Himself. This is what is received by those who love Him. Love is a two way street; it is two persons giving and two persons receiving. God is giving Himself completely to us; we can only receive His gift of self if our hearts are open to receive. Our hearts open when we choose to give, so the more we give, the more our hearts are open to receive.
It is difficult for us to open our hearts to love and to be loved because, as our Lord makes clear in the Gospel, there is a lot in our hearts that is not love. He tells us that what defiles us is what comes from within our hearts. He gives us a number of examples: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, etc. If we were to break this down, it means selfishness or the willingness to use others rather than love them. So, to give proof of our wisdom and intelligence, love God and neighbor!
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.