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God is a God of relationship

August 30, 2015

A reflection for the 22nd Sunday, Ordinary Time, year B. The readings are Deut 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm: 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27 and Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Maybe some of you are going to university this week, or have children going to university. One of the things about going to university, especially if you move out of the house, is that all those rules you had growing up – you don’t have to follow them anymore. You can stay up all night, sleep in, miss class, drink orange juice out of the container in the fridge; you don’t have to wash your hands before you eat… That’s the way it is. When I was young, I didn’t want to be told what to do; I wanted to figure it out by myself. I didn’t mind doing the things I was being told to do, but I wanted to do them because I wanted, not because I was being told.

Today’s first reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy presents two ways of living our relationship with God. First, it sounds like it’s all about the rules. Moses tells the people, ‘you have to follow these rules or else you won’t make it into the Promised Land. You have to learn them and teach them to your children and you can’t add anything to them or take anything away from them.’ It doesn’t matter why you follow these rules – just do it. But if you were paying attention, you would have heard that if you follow these rules, ‘if you observe them diligently, this will show your wisdom and discernment.’ Well, if you’re using wisdom and discernment, then you’re not just following the rules blindly! If you’re using wisdom and discernment, it means that you’re understanding the law and thinking about it – you’re not just following the letter of the law; but you’re understanding the spirit of the law.

So you have the letter of the law, what you have to do, and a chapter later Moses tells them what they have to do, the 10 commandments – but then you have the spirit of the law: this is why you should follow these commandments. And he gives them that a chapter later: ‘Hear, O Israel… Shema Israel, adonai eloheinu, adonai ehad: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ That’s the spirit of the law. That’s why we do it. Because of love.

And that’s what this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees is all about. The Pharisees get a bad rap – Jesus is always telling people not to be like the Pharisees and the Pharisees are always criticising Jesus and what he does. The Pharisees were very concerned with rules and behaviour. There were things that you could not do if you wanted to be saved – so they were worried about coming into contact with blood and dead bodies – they criticise Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath – because you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath – they worried about who was eating with tax collectors and sinners and they worried about how they should pray and fast and what they ate. And today they are complaining because some of Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before eating. And Jesus says to them, ‘you guys, you’re more concerned about washing your hands than you are about following the commandments.’ Today’s Gospel is from Mark, but in Matthew’s version of the story Jesus actually tells them, ‘you’re concerned about these traditions, but then you go home and you don’t honour your father and your mother.’ You’re worried about all these man-made rules and you’ve lost the spirit of the law – it’s not washing your hands that makes you clean; it’s what’s in your heart that makes you clean. And if there’s any doubt as to what things are important, today’s Psalm 15 and second reading from James give us good examples. The Psalm says, ‘speak truth from the heart; do not slander with your tongue; do not lend money with interest; do not take bribes’ and the second reading from the Letter of James – which we will be hearing all month – James really focuses on not just hearing the word, but doing the word – that’s what’s important: care for the orphans and widows, be kind to the poor – those are the actions that come out of following the spirit of the law.

And this conversation is really relevant for us today. For many of us, religion is still about following rules. And some people are very concerned about certain behaviour: we have to dress a certain way to go to church, we can’t eat meat on Fridays, we have to genuflect in front of the Tabernacle, we have to bow to the altar, we have to have multiple candles on the altar, we can only have organ music at Mass, we have to receive communion on the tongue or the hand, we have to kneel to receive communion… I’m not going to tell you that these are not important, but we have to know why we do these things. If I genuflect in front of the Tabernacle because I’m know that you’re watching me and I want you to think that I’m such a holy deacon – and then I go in the sacristy and start gossiping about a parishioner – that kind of defeats the purpose. We have to know why we do what we do. It’s not about following rules because God is not a God of rules. God is a God of relationship.

It’s like in marriage. On September 2nd this year, my wife and I celebrate 20 years of marriage – and what has kept our marriage alive for 20 years is not that we’ve followed a certain set of rules – I mean, there are things that you can do that will help your marriage – but you don’t do them because they are rules; you do them out of love. In a relationship, you don’t follow the letter of the law; you follow the spirit of the law. And God is a God of relationship.

But that’s part of growing up. That’s why it’s good to leave home; go to university. We have to figure things out on our own. We have to question things. As children we are taught the letter of the law- but as we grow, we have to figure out the spirit of the law. In a way, that’s what the Second Vatican Council was about – three years ago we celebrated 50 years of the opening of the second Vatican Council – some of you will remember that. The Church had gone through a long period of just blindly following rules – people didn’t read the bible, people didn’t learn catechism, you just went to Mass, it was in a different language; you got your Sacraments, you said your prayers and no one knew why we had to do all these things. And a lot of people thought that the Council was going to throw out all those rules (alot of people still think that the Council threw out all the rules). But Pope John XXIII said he was opening the windows to let in fresh air – not to throw out the furniture! He was not going to abolish the law – he was going to help us get to the spirit of the law. The Council helped us focus not so much on the rules, but more on the relationship.

And that’s what Jesus Christ said as well; ‘I have come, not to do away with the law, but to fulfill the law.’ That’s what it is – not to keep us as robots that follow blindly, and just do what we’re told, but to help us grow up – to help us love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.

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From → English, Reflections

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