22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen & Broadcast
August 28, 2021
External vs. Internal Cleanliness
In these days when we find ourselves still struggling with the pandemic, any suggestion – even in a Gospel passage – that there is something wrongheaded about washing one’s hands before eating or purifying cooking utensils – annoys us. If anything, we have become much more conscious of the need for cleanliness in order to keep ourselves, our families, and the wider community safe and healthy.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees and Scribes confront Jesus over the fact that his disciples eat their bread without washing their hands – thus seeming to disregard Jewish law and tradition. In the face of their accusations, Jesus does not back down. On the contrary, he raises the stakes by accusing those leaders of subverting what God intended when he gave them the law through Moses. In effect, he tells them that the statutes and laws pertaining to the purification of one’s hands and vessels were not mere rules of hygiene or prescriptions for ritual purity. Rather, as many OT prophets taught, the real intent of God’s law was purity of heart. In their concern for external cleanliness, those Pharisees and Scribes neglected cleanliness of the heart, one’s inmost self.
So, nothing in the Gospel prevents us from washing our hands or cleaning our utensils, but everything in the Gospel–and in today’s 2nd reading from the Letter of James— exhorts us to give first priority to the cleansing of our hearts, to give first priority to the cry of Psalm 51: “Create in me, O God, a clean heart!” For Jesus concludes his dispute with the Jewish leaders by summoning the crowd and by telling them (and us) that nothing we eat (or how we eat it) makes us unclean. What defiles us are the evil things that come out of us, the sinful deeds and the sinful attitudes that originate in our inmost depths. So too, St. James exhorts us to ‘put away all filth and evil excess, and humbly to welcome the Word that has been planted in us,’ such that we will ‘not only hear the Word of God but act on it’ . . . especially by caring for those in need and by ‘keeping ourselves unstained by the world’.
Friends, these readings are crucial if we really want to understand and live our faith. They challenge us to be like Jesus: pure of heart, meek and humble of heart, to be free of sin.
Yet, in our daily struggle with sin, don’t we wonder how it is possible to live like that. Or might we not wonder if it’s really worth the effort to live like that?
If we read today’s Gospel merely as an exhortation to avoid evil thoughts and deeds, or if we see today’s reading from James merely as an exhortation to upright living, we may come away from this Sunday liturgy more discouraged than encouraged. We may say to ourselves, “I am trying as best I can to overcome my sins – my sinful thoughts and attitudes – but try as I might I’m not making much progress.” In this case, we may regard the faith as a bundle of moral demands too heavy to carry. Or else we may say to ourselves, “Well, in condemning the legalism of the Pharisees, Jesus just gave me permission to ignore any rules of conduct that I find annoying.” In this case, we may think of our Catholic faith as a thicket of rules and regulations and we may even think ourselves exempt from the moral demands of the Gospel. Both approaches, however, miss something exceedingly crucial.
That “crucial something” is our encounter with the Lord, with the Person of Jesus. An encounter is more than a chance meeting or an on-again off-again relationship. Our encounter with the Lord is that moment of intense grace, when we stop along the road of life and at long last recognize that Jesus himself is gazing intently at us, Jesus himself looking into our hearts, looking at us with love, a love that inspires, uproots, and changes us, looking at us in a way that attracts us, as when one falls deeply in love. Opening the eyes of our soul to Jesus, we meet the God who became one of us, a Savior supremely meek and mild, pure of heart, all good and all loving, the Savior who desires ‘that we be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.’ But given the fact that Jesus walked the earth more than 2,000 years ago, how can we have this encounter today – in our time, our place & our circumstances? Let me offer several responses to that important question.
Word, Sacrament, and an Open Heart
First, in today’s 2nd reading, James urges us ‘humbly to welcome the word, the Word of God, that has been planted in us and that is able to save our souls.’ In other words, James is urging us to welcome the Lord himself into our hearts, Jesus, who speaks to us through Scripture and who is in fact the living Word of God! James is telling us that this God’s Word has been planted in our hearts, that our hearts are the soil into which the seed of God’s Word has been planted. So, dear friends, if we wish to encounter the Lord it seems to me that we need to spend quality time with the Scriptures, listening not only with our ears but also with our hearts, as the Lord himself speaks to us when the Word is proclaimed and read, whether in the liturgy or in the privacy of our homes!
Second, in the Sacrament of Baptism we have been cleansed – interiorly! The water that cleanses us bodily, in the power of the Spirit, cleanses us inwardly – removing from us original sin and, if we are of age, any sins that we have committed. Not only does this cleansing remove our sins but it also imparts to us a new life. It makes of us sharers in the life of Christ; by Baptism, Christ begins to live in us – and we begin to share in his victory over sin and death, his Death and Resurrection. What’s more, our baptism is not a one-and-done event but is rather a living reality. When we sin, our baptismal innocence and our relationship with the Lord and his People the Church can be restored by the worthy reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this Sacrament, the Lord looks upon us with the eyes of mercy, just as he looked upon Zacchaeus and many others in the Gospels. And through the Eucharist, the Lord comes to us in the full truth and reality of his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity and unites himself to us as our food and drink, so intimately does the Lord desire to live in us and to remain with us – and for us to live and to remain in him!
When the Word of God is proclaimed, Jesus speaks. When Baptism is administered, Jesus begins to live in us. When the Eucharist is celebrated, Jesus is truly present. In all these ways, the stage is set for us to encounter the Lord in our hearts – but only when we are willing to open our hearts to him and to his Word and to his Sacraments. When we do so, the Lord who is supremely pure of heart lives in us more intensely. Through the Spirit, Jesus more and more speaks and acts in us and through us, continually cleansing our hearts, continually spurring us on to a life of self-giving love, continually steering us away from those things that defile us and those around us. None of this is easy or automatic; all of it requires a lifetime of prayer and vigilance! Yet, as St. Teresa of Calcutta often said, ‘if we give God permission’, the Lord and his Spirit will indeed transform our hearts, indeed our very lives, enabling us to experience the inner joy and freedom for which we long, while embracing the moral demands of the Gospel.
And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!