By Father Joseph Brando
Divine law supersedes human tradition, motivates from within
The theme of September’s five Sunday Liturgies comes from the opening Gospel. In that passage (Mark 7:1-23), Jesus is asked why his disciples eat their food with dirty hands.
Jewish tradition had a strong emphasis on cleanliness; and the disciples’ apparent disregard for this tradition must have been a result of Jesus’ telling them otherwise. Jesus didn’t refute that theory. Rather, he had a double-barreled response ready for those who noticed the violation of tradition. First, quoting Isaiah, Jesus decried the people’s paying God only lip service by emphasizing external observances over true worship from the heart. Second, the Lord pointed out that they had replaced divine law with human tradition. It is a person’s interior that counts, not what is on the surface.
We’ll see how this theme, emphasizing interior cleanliness over the exterior, develops throughout the month. The Old Testament readings will show that God has consistently revealed that the ideal law motivates a person from within even when it becomes messy and painful on the outside. Then we’ll delve into the Epistle of James, with its thoroughly practical view of faith. All five Sundays feature a passage from James, each of which neatly fits the theme. Finally, we’ll explore the Gospel passages, which give examples that Jesus’ kingdom can get one dirty—the ultimate example being Jesus’ passion and death.
The first of the Old Testament readings, from the Torah, itself, presents the reason for following the law of God. The law makes individuals wise and unites them into a people noted for their collective wisdom if they interiorize it and put into practice. The next two weeks (the 23rd and 24th Sundays of Ordinary Time) have readings from Isaiah. However, they refer to events about 200 years apart. In the first, King Hezekiah was seeking to avoid war with the Assyrians by making an alliance with Egypt. Isaiah prophesied against such a plan, telling the king that Judah should trust God and stand up against the Assyrians, who had just routed the northern kingdom of Israel and were now hell-bent to destroy Jerusalem. Judah should depend on the Lord (and not Egypt) to deliver them from their enemies. To do so would mean certain war and the risk of annihilation. Yet, the king did what God told him through Isaiah; eventually the siege of Jerusalem was lifted as the Assyrians were forced to retreat.
On the 24th Sunday, the scene changes to Babylon, where the people of Judah are suffering in exile. An oracle comes (perhaps from a group of religious Jews who followed in the tradition of Isaiah) that relates to the Jews’ situation. “I gave my back to those who beat me. … [But] the Lord is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” We have a major new insight. Suffering can be part of God’s plan for renewal. The law of God includes misery and getting dirty. However, the prophecy also includes, “He is near who upholds my right.” Judah’s deliverance is near if their “faces are set like flint.” Indeed, what was seemingly impossible happened. Babylon was defeated by the Persians allowing Judah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
On the 25th Sunday, we travel in time to the second century before Christ by means of the Book of Wisdom. The Jews are now in a battle for survival against Greek overlords who were determined to create a unified world in which theirs was the only religion tolerated. “Let us beset the just one. Let us see if his words be true.” Once again, fidelity to the law demanded pain. One must prove his or her relationship with God by undergoing torture or risking one’s life in rebellion. The Jews revolted; their guerilla campaign succeeded. Perhaps Jesus had to remind the Pharisees of their own relatively recent heritage of rugged sacrifice for the sake of keeping God’s law. For the last Sunday, we return to the Torah. The Book of Numbers tells the story that two men received the spirit of God who were absent from the ritual at which this spirit was to be conferred. Moses’ response to the murky situation was to thank God and hope for even more such men. It is not the exterior ritual but the action of God within us that makes all the difference. This was one of the principles Jesus wanted to illustrate by having his disciples eat without washing their hands.
The second readings for all of September’s Sundays come from the Letter of James. We not only get an overall synopsis of the entire Letter; but we get a strong reinforcement of the theme for the month:
- “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”
- “True religion is to care for orphans and widows.”
- “Show no partiality” (That is, do not judge by externals).
- “Faith without works is dead.”
- “Wisdom is pure…wars and conflicts come from within.”
- “You rich: weep and wail over your impending miseries…You have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.”
In each of these passages, we learn not to base our judgments on externals. One can look into the face of a poor, nasty-looking person and see God. Mother Teresa did every day.
As we come to this month’s Gospels, we revisit the seventh chapter of Mark where Jesus explained why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. In the next Sunday’s passage from the same chapter, Mark presents an instance when Jesus got his hands dirty. Jesus took hold of a deaf mute’s tongue and spit in the process of curing him. This incident gives us the idea that Jesus’ cures were not all neat, sterile blessings. At least some were messy struggles. The Lord did not fret about getting his hands soiled or becoming ritually unclean. He was so impelled by compassion that his action in healing others exposed his inner being. The dirtier he got the more he showed he was God. Ultimately, such a progression reached its climax at Calvary.
On the third Sunday of September, we continue to Mark’s eighth chapter and Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Messiah. Immediately after that, Jesus began teaching that the Son of Man will suffer and those who follow him must take up their cross. The way of Faith is not easy without a true interior life of relationship with our loving Father.
The Gospels for the last two Sundays of the month are both from the ninth chapter of Mark. They each present corollaries to the basic truth that salvation demands some form of suffering. As Jesus traveled through Galilee on his way to Calvary, he taught his disciples about the cross. Once, they were arguing over who was the greatest. After, perhaps, a deep sigh, Jesus calmly but authoritatively told them that to be great in the kingdom one had to be the servant of all. Then he took a child (who had virtually no rights in contemporary society) and set him up as the ideal Christian. To become childlike involves a long, excruciating fight with one’s ego. But, it’s a price worth paying.
The last Sunday of the month emphasizes the previous point with the challenging statement of Jesus that it is better for a millstone to be placed around the neck of a man and he be thrown into the sea if he causes a ‘little one’ to sin. It is better to enter the kingdom maimed by cutting off an offending body part than to be thrown into Gehenna whole.
There is the brutal reality.
We must conquer our human tendency to give in to temptation. Never give up that fight. Battling temptation may lead us to think of ourselves as dirty. Yet, if we are waging the good fight against evil, no matter how frazzled, messy and hurt we may be, there is good news. The good news for this month is that God is with us, closer than ever.
Father Brando is the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg.