The theme of today’s readings is the nature of true religion.
“They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.” That is a good way to say, “They’re just giving lip service.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “lip service” as: support for someone or something that is expressed by someone in words but that is not shown in that person’s actions.
God puts it like this: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13a)
Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time a fox was roaming in a forest in search of food. Unfortunately he was caught in a trap. He tried his best to get free. In trying to get out of the trap, he was able to do so but lost his tail in the struggle. The fox felt very small. He knew that every fox would laugh at him. He was so sad that he thought of killing himself. But then he said to himself, “It is cowardice to kill oneself. I should do something else.”
At last the fox planned to persuade all the foxes to part with their tails. It was sure to divert their attention from his tail-less appearance. So, the fox called a meeting of the foxes and advised them to do away with their tails. He said, “They are ugly, heavy and tiresome. We must get rid of them.”
But one clever fox said, “Good,sir! you wouldn’t be so keen to give us that advice, if you were not tail-less. Isn’t it ?”
The moral of the story: Hypocrisy seldom works.
At a funeral of Mr. John, a Gentleman went to the podium and began to eulogize him highly and say good things about Mr. John which his wife never heard about or experienced in her lifetime. So she got little suspicious and than she nudged her children and said “Just go to the coffin and verify that it’s your your dad in there or someone else.”
Some people exaggerate things after death which they never mean a bit during their lifetime.
One Sunday, a man sat through a church service and then on the way home he fussed about the sermon, he griped about the traffic, he complained about the heat, and he made a big fuss about how late the lunch meal was served. Then he bowed and prayed, giving God thanks for the food.
His son was watching him all the way through this post-church experience. Just as they were beginning to pass the food he said, “Daddy, did God hear you when we left the church and you started fussin’ about the sermon and about the traffic and about the heat?”
The father blushed and said, “Well, yes, son, He heard me.”
“Well, Daddy, did God hear you when you just prayed for this food right now?”
And he says, “Well, yes, son, He … He … He heard me.”
“Well, Daddy, which one did God believe?”
That little story showcases a problem that afflicts far too many church people. Too often what we claim to be and what we really are is miles apart. We call this condition “hypocrisy”.
This word comes to us from the ancient Greek language. It was used to describe actors in a play. Ancient actors would carry different masks in their hands as they acted. The masks were attached to sticks and could be held before the face as needed. A smiling mask suggested humor, a frowning mask suggested sadness, etc. These actors were called the “hypocritos”. This word means “one who wears a mask”.
We use the word today to refer to people who pretend to be one thing when they are actually something else. People who pretend to be your friend while stabbing you in the back are hypocrites. People who live one way at church and another way at home are hypocrites. People who attempt to do wicked things under the radar while acting like all is well are hypocrites. Now, there should be no people like that in the church, but sadly, there are some in every congregation.
Some people claim there are too many hypocrites in the church. I say there aren’t as many as they claim. It is just an excuse they use for not coming to church. When you hear that kind of talk just say, “Oh come on, one more won’t make any difference”. Or just say, “It is better to spend a few hours with them in church and to spend eternity with them in Hell”. Or simply say, “If a hypocrite is standing between you and God, the hypocrite is closer to God than you are.”
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
In the first reading Moses asks the Israelites, “What great nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”
We find in the first reading that the Law of Moses was very important for the people of Israel. They were rightly proud of the legal system they had developed in their desire to be God’s people., Through the Law they were expected to lead lives which were different, better than their ‘pagan’ neighbours. There was, then, great emphasis on the observance of the Law as a sign of commitment and obedience to God. But, by the time of Jesus, the law had become so hopelessly complicated in its applications that only experts could interpret it in the many practical problems which would arise in daily living.
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
In today’s reading from the Letter of James, the writer speaks of the real source of law: “All that is good, everything that is perfect…comes down from the Father of all light.” Jesus, as the Word of God, is the bearer of all this goodness and perfection. So James exhorts us to “accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you… You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15,21-23
One of the problems that had arisen during the time of Jesus was, that the law was no longer a guideline helping people on their way to loving and serving God. Observing the law had become an end in itself. The emphasis was not on building a relationship with God and one’s fellow human beings but on checking out one’s own external behaviour.
As Jesus indicates in today’s Gospel, many of the Old Testament laws were of human invention. They had little to do with loving God but rather of conforming to social demands. On the one hand, they helped those in authority keep control; on the other, people knew where they stood. If they externally observed the Law, they were “good”.
As in our time we might say: “He’s a good Catholic; he’s always in church on Sunday.” There is no mention of what he does in church, what he thinks, or what he feels, or how he relates to the people around him during and especially after Mass. The important thing, in a way the only thing that matters, is that he is THERE physically.
The problem is presented in the Gospel today by a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. “Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?” The purpose of today’s Gospel to put the Jewish customs in proper perspective. There were many prescriptions in Jewish law which seem to be primarily hygienic in origin, e.g. the distinction between foods that were “clean” and “unclean”. However, Jesus is not criticising such precautions. What he is criticising is the disproportionate importance given to these things to the neglect of what is far more important, the love of God and the care for one’s fellow human beings. It was this sense of deep compassion that made Francis of Assisi throw caution to the winds and kiss the leper he met on the road.
So Jesus today quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is useless, the doctrines they teach are mere human regulations. They put human traditions before the commandments of God.” Jesus is not against the Pharisees as such but against rigidly doctrinaire Jewish members of the Christian community and against similar people among our own communities today.
Jesus then speaks of where real uncleanness comes from. The source of uncleanness is not any food or drink that comes from outside. Real uncleanness is in the heart. A person does not become “unclean” by eating pork or by coming in contact with blood, still less by not washing hands before eating but by “evil intentions” that arise in the depths of the heart: lust, stealing, murder, adultery, greed, maliciousness, deceit, jealousy, slanderous talk, arrogance. ( Courtesy Fr. Marcel Barla Cap., A Scripture Student in Rome, Italy)
A hypocrite is one to whom religion is a legal thing, anyone to whom religion means carrying out certain external rules and regulations, anyone to whom religion is entirely connected with the observation of a certain ritual and the keeping of a certain number of taboos. He believes that he is a good man if he carries out the correct acts and practices, no matter what is heart and his thoughts are like. True religion does not consists in external observers; it must come from the heart.
James was an extremely practical man, and in his letter he provides a clear answer to our question.
He is a good Christian who:
- listens attentively to God’s Word and acts accordingly
- keeps his heart clean
- helps his brothers and sisters in need.
William Barclay narrates the story of a Rabbi imprisoned by the Romans, who used the rationed drinking water for washing his hands while going thirsty everyday. He almost died of thirst and dehydration because he was determined to observe the rules of ritual cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst!
Jesus taught that we must worship God in spirit and truth.
Look into your heart right now. What do you find there? Anger? Lust? Divisiveness? Unforgiveness? Pride? Hatred? Deviousness? Or, do you find, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance? What dwells in your heart is what you really are! Let’s obey His voice right now.
The very purpose of Religion is not to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are he things which we must check in our daily life.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.