“Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” So says St. James in today’s second reading. This verse provides us with a thematic anchor for this week’s pondering. God’s word is truly like a seed and we are to receive it with hearts like fertile soil, humus, the root word for humility.
When we look at a seed, we see only its outward appearance; we cannot see the plant that it will become. This two-fold characteristic of seeds gives us key to understanding the practice of our religion. There is a visible exterior aspect and a hidden interior aspect, with tremendous potential. The Pharisees and scribes in today’s Gospel are focused on fulfilling the exterior rituals of purity. They criticize Jesus’ disciples for failing to observe all the rules, particularly the requirement about washing one’s hands before eating. Our recent preoccupation with hand-washing due to the pandemic may distort our understanding of why these Pharisees are so concerned about “unclean hands.” They are not thinking of good hygiene or “safety protocols.” Nor are they simply being ritualistic. The Pharisees and scribes were dedicated to adhering perfectly to the Law given through Moses, that is, to all the distinctive tenets of the Jewish religion.
Today’s first reading gives us a good reminder of what the Israelites thought about their system of “statutes and decrees.” The Law was a precious, God-given treasure, an indication of God’s special favor and a path to greatness among the nations. In this passage from Deuteronomy, we read part of Moses’ long exhortation to the Israelites. He is about to die, and they are about to enter the Promised Land. The final words of a dying man, especially a man with the stature of Moses, are of immense importance. In fact, the whole Book of Deuteronomy is presented in the form of Moses’ final exhortations to the people. One of his very clear instructions is that they must follow the whole system of laws and commandments: “you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully….” Among the many instructions of Moses, there are detailed purification rituals (cf. Lev 11 16). The Pharisees and scribes are following them all to the letter – and they expect everyone else to do the same, especially a preacher like Jesus and his disciples.
Rather than praising these legal experts for their faithfulness and zeal, Jesus rebukes them. Why? Because he can see not only their external righteousness but also the condition of their hearts. On the outside are forms of purity and proper worship, but inside lie deceit, malice, arrogance and folly. When a person’s exterior performance does not correspond to what is in his heart, that is hypocrisy. Jesus refers these experts back to a prophecy they have already read in the Book of Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (cf. Is 29:13).
The Law that God gave to Moses was never merely a matter of purification rituals. The rituals were given as expressions of the covenant, the sacred bond, that God established with his people: “I will be your God; you will be my people.” Without this covenantal relationship, the Law loses its very foundation, and the rituals become showy, empty forms. Jesus, in his rebuke, points out to the Pharisees that in their hearts they have forgotten the covenant, so they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
How can we avoid the trap of hypocrisy in the practice of our Christian faith? How can we be faithful to the covenant and ensure that our interior matches our exterior? We turn to the Letter of St. James for the answer. His exhortation today is very clear: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” The source of our faith is God, “the Father of lights.” It is not our perfect performance that saves us but his “word of truth,” planted in our hearts, which is able to save our souls. We must allow the word to penetrate us and bear its fruit – not self-righteousness and judgment of others but, as James tells us, “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.” Love of God is normally expressed in concrete acts of love of neighbor. What about purification rituals? St. James is clear about this as well: “to keep oneself unstained by the world.” That is, our concern must be, not hand-washing but detachment from worldliness and rejection of the impurity of sin. To aim always for greater love, in faithfulness to our covenant of love with God, is the essence of “religion that is pure and undefiled.”
In what ways do I honor the Lord with my lips and not my heart? How do I allow the word to penetrate me and bear fruit and not self-righteousness? How is my faithfulness to my covenant of love to God being manifested in my life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.