We are rewarded when our hearts are one with God

  • August 24, 2012
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 2 (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

When asking the reason for a particular rule or policy, people seldom take well to the answer, “Because I say so, that’s why!” The irritation is understandable, for this is nothing more than authoritarianism — the bane of families, societies, religions and nations.

In the covenant theology of Deuteronomy divine command is certainly evident, but with a huge difference. First of all, the author celebrates the fact that the statutes, laws and ordinances are just and meaningful — so much so, in fact, that it elicits wonder and admiration from the surrounding nations. There is a reason for the laws: they establish and maintain humane and just societies where human beings can flourish and be happy. The Israelites were also free to reject the laws laid down by God. Force was not involved, but the laws were an essential expression of the covenant. The people were warned not to tinker with the commandments by adding or subtracting from its provisions. The first tendency burdens people unnecessarily and claims divine sanction for what is merely human, while the second strives to create a smooth and easy highway for human desires. Needless to say, human religious traditions — all of them — have been guilty of both tendencies.

How are we to understand law and covenant today? Both the prophets and the New Testament insist that all of the laws and statutes are concrete expressions of the love commandment. These expressions evolve and change according to time, place and culture but the prime commandment, to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbour as ourselves is always applicable and can never be set aside. When this divine command is violated or ignored, we suffer the consequences. The most important aspect of the covenant, however, is the relationship that is established between God and human beings. As a sign of loyalty and love, Israel vowed to obey the divine commandments. This same faithful love was expressed by God in the commitment to always be there for Israel in powerful and extraordinary ways. God always kept God’s part of the covenant, while Israel was often unfaithful. We have not done appreciably better — if we had, the world in which we live would be a much nicer place. A rich and rewarding relationship is only possible when our hearts are one with God.

The author of James energetically agrees. Talk is cheap; real love is always manifested in deeds. The word of God — the divine teaching — is not a creed to memorize but principles to be planted deep in our hearts and souls. True and pure religion is putting the divine teachings into practice, and this consists of caring for the poor, weak and suffering, as well as keeping oneself free of the negative aspects of human culture.

There is abundant evidence of evil, ungodliness and impurity in our world. We are all painfully aware of it and we constantly ask questions about causes, responsibilities and possible courses of action. Moralists, reformers, religious zealots and curmudgeons are quick with the answers but often lacking in compassion, reflection and insight. Stressing control and conformity in behaviour often neglects inner transformation.

Just as the kingdom of God is within us, so is the realm of darkness. Jesus zeroed in on the human heart as the source of all of the world’s negativity. Understood biblically, the heart is the deepest centre of the understanding self — a blend of intellect, feeling and spirit. Just, loving and kind behaviour is a reflection of a pure and loving heart. But when the heart is not right with God, it becomes the place where human fears, desires, hatred and lust for power dwell. Affecting a squeaky-clean moral exterior is useless in this latter case — the negativity will spill out in countless ways. If we want a pure and peaceful world then transformation must begin here.

The source of the word hypocrite used in this passage was the elaborate masks used in the Greek theatre. A hypocrite is one who wears a mask, deceiving self and others. Hypocrisy is living in a world of illusion and projecting one’s darkness on others. The solution is self-knowledge and transformation, which begins with humble reception of God’s word into the heart.