There is an oft held misconception that religion is about keeping rules and regulations. This simply is not true. God desires our happiness; He truly wants us to know we are loved and for us to spend eternity with Him. But life is not so clear that we can make a choice to follow Him and never waver from it. We do need some direction. Rather than putting us into the world and then leaving us without any sense of how to find our way through a maze of temptations, evils, and decisions, He offers us a way to navigate through everything. These are the commandments and laws. They were not meant to be oppressive, but to free us to know the path which would keep us safe. We can see that in the Old Testament God provided the Law of Moses and the prophets, but when the people became confused by the many cultures that influenced them, He sent His own Son, Jesus, to offer salvation. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. Basically, He taught that fulfilling the law means that we are to live the law of love.
In the first reading this Sunday we hear about Moses entreating the people to properly live the Law. There were many statutes and rules within the Law, but the point was to use these rules as a way to love, to do justice, and to have the wisdom to discern their responses in various situations. The Law was never intended to be burdensome, which is something the people did know. When it was first delivered to them they were actually overjoyed. The reason for this was that they interpreted the Law as a sign of God’s love for them. In other words, they felt (rightly) that God cared enough about their well-being that He gave them a set of guidelines for their protection. As a result, they literally rejoiced when the Law was delivered. Sadly, they had a difficult time consistently living it, but God forgave them when they faltered and also sent many prophets and guides throughout the years to help them understand that the Law was His way of loving them and helping them to love one another.
This week’s second reading, from the letter of James, truly reiterates the message of Moses: the law is a sign of love and is meant to help us love one another. James wrote, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:22,27) Of course, the word to which he is referring is the message of Jesus who took the Law and brought it back to God’s original intention, which is that we love one another. James was cautioning his community to adhere to the law of love rather than to fall into the sin of selfishness.
In the Gospel, the Pharisees appear to misunderstand the point of the Law. They accused Jesus of breaking the Law when He let His followers eat their meals without going through the prescribed washing rituals. Jesus’ response was that it is not what goes into one that makes one defiled. He said, “...the things that come out from within are what defile.” What He was saying was that our words and deeds are what constitute sin, not how we eat or whether we follow all the rituals before a meal. He further spelled it out by indicating sinful behaviors that come from the heart, such as deceit, arrogance, evil thoughts, envy, theft, etc., are what make one unclean or sinful. (Mark 7:21-23) Our motivations and behaviors are either leading us to God or away from Him, and if we want to come closer to God, growing in holiness, we need to do that which is a work of love. If we do works of love with our hands a bit dirty it is better than washing them to ‘hospital specifications’ and doing selfish, hurtful acts, so to speak.
While we know that sin breaks down instead of building up and that it ‘insulates us’ against God’s love, we also need to be aware that the opposite is also true: when we do works of love and mercy, we build up the community and it also brings us more deeply into the heart of God. All works of good, anything that brings us closer to God or any work we do to bring another closer to God, delights God. It sounds easy, but unfortunately life is not so simple. Living in a world of temptations and evils means that it takes a lot of effort to continually choose what is right and loving. What complicates matters is that there are a lot of conflicting, even compelling, voices which try to tell us that another way is better or that our efforts are really futile and worthless. These voices try to keep us from being the people God intended us to be. The messages they send are subtle and insidious, trying to pervert our way of thinking into compliance with the way of the world which says that we are entitled to anything we want, that we should take the easy path, and that the rules are oppressive rather than freeing.
Just as harmful are the confusing messages we get from those who are the Pharisees of our age who urge us to keep the rules slavishly, “or we are going to hell.” These are the ones who follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. They are the ones who insist that unless we pray 'just so,' take on this posture or practice as opposed to that one, and make the rules into our god instead of following the true God of love, then we are not doing what we should be doing. These are the ones who make God into their own image and likeness, as sort of a modern golden calf, rather than taking to heart the message of Jesus. They want everything neat and tidy, so that they never have to do much thinking; they insist we follow the rules for the rules own sake. Unfortunately, life is not neat and tidy. As I said earlier, it is not that we should have no guidelines at all: the law is meant to free us and it is to give us a sense of what is right and wrong. We do need that. But a slavish adherence to it, enthroning the law rather than allowing love to be our guide in how to live that law, is folly.
We need to find the middle ground between living in slavish adherence to a set of rules and living with reckless abandon. Micah seemed to know how to find this path when he wrote: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Jesus spent His life trying to get us to understand this very teaching from the Father. God wants for us to do what is good and just, which is accomplished through continual reliance upon Him. We need to pray always so we can have the relationship with God which He desires and so that we can discern the way of love. In doing so, not only do we receive His love, but we come to know Him and His ways. God begins to rub off on us, so to speak, and we therefore begin to respond to people and situations more as He would.
To walk humbly with God means that we learn how to be people of love and mercy, recognizing that we can do nothing without Him. We are not meant to be slaves, but rather we are meant to be free, leading others to that same freedom which comes from God and from no other source. We need to be like the disciples whose hearts were moved to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, stand up for justice and truth, and to visit the ill, widow, neglected, lonely, and poor. And we need to be willing to share what we have, protect the innocent, take care of the beauty of the earth, share our faith in word and deed, and be filled with gratitude for what we have. This is what it means to live the spirit of the law. We accept the guidelines which we have been given, praying for the wisdom to love as we ought. Just as the disciples had to learn where to put their priorities, we need to learn from Jesus where to put ours. Let us walk this, the narrow road, which is the way to eternal life. Let us not travel alone, but rather let us bring others along with us.
May we do what is right, seek justice, and walk humbly with God! May we be good disciples of Jesus, working to live the spirit of the law, not simply the letter of the law! May we learn to discern how to listen to the voice of God as opposed to the voice of temptation! May we be witnesses to love through our works of sharing, mercy, and compassion! May we be willing to walk the narrow road rather than the way which feels easier but which may lead us away from God! May we be willing to teach others the way of love through our word and deed! And may we recognize the presence of the Lord with us as we walk the narrow path! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Friends, in the spirit of Labor Day, I will not be posting an entry next week. I am taking a short break to recharge my ‘writing batteries.’ If you want to check out something in the archives to reflect upon, just click on the month and year from the list at the right and you can re-read a previous entry. I will be back the following week.
The first painting is The Sermon on the Mount by Bl. Fra Angelico.
Following, is one of my own photos of Michelangelo's Moses, which resides in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, Italy.
The next painting is St. James the Apostle by Peter Paul Rubens.
After the Rubens, is an inset of a painting called Christ Accused by the Pharisees, by Duccio di Buoninsegua.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Christ All Merciful. If you have an interest in obtaining a copy you can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-all-merciful-022-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Last is another of my photos, taken at a farm near Noto, Sicily.
Heart Speaks to Heart