Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 2: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

All talk and no action

Dt 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


One bright thread that runs through all the Scriptures is an emphasis on action and not mere words. That is clear in each of the readings for this Sunday.  

The first reading is from the Book of Deuteronomy, the major Old Testament book portrayed as Moses’ exhortation to the people as they are about to cross over into the promised land. One Old Testament scholar has dubbed Deuteronomy as “meditations on the frontier.” The passage we hear today sets a fundamental tone: the statutes of the Lord that Moses has presented to the people are to be “observed” in order that the people “may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land” which God was giving them.  

The response, taken from Psalm 16 picks up the same motif: “The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” Note the emphasis not just on speaking about justice but actually “doing” it. 

We also hear this Sunday from the Letter of James, a blunt New Testament book that is especially strong on the need for action and not mere words: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” In another famous passage from James, the author mocks those who see a “brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” The passage today ends on a similar note, asking ‘what is religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father?” It is this: “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.”

If there is a consistent emphasis in Jesus’ own ethical teaching throughout the four Gospels, it is also insistence on action rather than mere words. We have a prime example in today’s selection from Mark that describes a conflict between Jesus and some of the religious leaders.  
They complain to Jesus that his disciples “ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands.” Mark’s Gospel goes on to explain for the reader of his narrative that washing hands before meals and observing other purity laws is an important tradition for Jews. [Note, having to explain this suggests that Mark is writing for mainly Gentile Christians who are not informed about Jewish practice.]  

Attention to these purification rituals was not a matter simply of hygiene but an attempt to avoid cultic contamination by contacting substances the Law of Moses considered “unclean.” There is no doubt that Jesus himself as a devout Jew would have observed such rituals. 

But Jesus’ confrontation with his opponents was not an attack on these rituals. He quotes from the prophet Isaiah to expose their hypocrisy in honoring God with “their lips” while their hearts and actions did not reflect the spirit of the Law. It was, Jesus bluntly tells the religious leaders, not what we take into the body from the outside that ultimately defiles us, but what comes out of the human heart: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” These are the attitudes and actions not in accord with God’s word but defilements of it. 

As someone who has had the opportunity to study, teach and speak about theology most of my adult life, I am aware of a strange liability that goes with this experience. Sometimes, academic theologians can delude ourselves into thinking that expressing something about Christian faith in an eloquent or novel way is sufficient. As homilists, too, priests and deacons can become used to religious language and be content with having said the right words. 

The Scriptures for today remind us that saying the right words — however useful that can be — is not enough. The true test of our discipleship is to transform our words into action. We are called to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.”



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