Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law (1659) by Rembrandt Photo/Public domain

We find God when we cleanse our hearts

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  • August 20, 2015

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 30 (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

Obedience to rules and laws, especially those of a religious nature, is not popular with many people. Often there is a good reason — we lose sight of the logic behind them, or they fail to take real-life situations into account. They become an end in themselves rather than tools for something greater.

The author of Deuteronomy, however, saw the commandments and statutes of God in a different way. They were the fundamental principles for establishing and maintaining a society fit for God’s presence. Most were concerned with justice, the common good, protection of the weak and vulnerable and the prohibition of violence and oppression. Add to that respect for property, the periodic release of land and debts and the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself, and you have all the ingredients for a just and humane society. When Israel remembered this, the nation thrived and all was well. When the people of God went astray, ignoring the demands of justice, disaster was not far behind.

The laws of God are not frivolous or whimsical — they are like the law of gravity. There are consequences for ignoring it! It is living in harmony with God’s laws that makes a nation great, not wealth, power or technical skill. A truly great nation or society radiates God’s presence in the way in which they treat one another. They become a beacon to the nations, calling them to a God-centred and just way of life.

So why do we find it so difficult to follow this path? Part of it is human nature — many choose what they perceive to be the easier or more fruitful way (it seldom is!).

Ignorance plays a part — many simply do not understand the reason or purpose for these divine principles. But there is another problem — many rules of human origin, often serving human ends — become attached to the body of divine commandments. Human laws are dressed up to look like God’s laws. Living a life in conformity with divine law becomes a burden instead of a joy. The failure to separate the two probably can have a deadening effect on the spiritual consciousness and moral sensitivity of many people.

James understood this well. Generosity and giving come from God and reflect God’s nature. James was the mortal enemy of empty lip-service — he reminded his audience that they must be doers of the word and not just hearers — talk is cheap. True religion, pure before God, is to care for the weak and needy and to govern one’s life by God’s laws rather than worldly ways.

The Pharisees were no more hypocritical or legalistic than religious people of all times and places. This story illustrates what happens when religion becomes sort of a game we play with God. People think God can be kept happy by their adherence to a mountain of smothering rules. To compound the problem, this is usually at the expense of what truly is the will of God, matters of justice and compassionate action. After a time, people rebel and throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. At the top of the list was an obsession with purity, which is something all religions share. The assumption is that we are pure inside and that all defilement comes from outside. If we can build a firewall against forbidden food, drink, etc., all will be well.

Jesus would have none of this — He zeroed in on the source of the problem. He rightly insisted we have it backwards. Every form of evil, depravity, negativity, sin and violence originates in the human heart, not outside. That is where the clean-up must begin, rather than projecting our darkness on others or on the created order. The good news: as we cleanse the darkness from our hearts, we uncover the God hidden there.

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