22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8 | James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
God of might, giver of every good gift, put into our hearts the love of your name so that, by deepening our sense of reverence, you may nurture in us what is good and, by your watchful care, keep safe what you have nurtured. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
I want to start my homily this morning with the thoughts of St. James. He’s saying something that I think is very, very important for us to understand what he sees, what he’s trying to share with us. He’s implying that God has created human beings, and when he entered into their life, when he became their God, he planted something within them, a seed. That thing that he planted in them is the truth — the truth, who they are, what they’re here for, who God is. It’s a gift given to human beings who are engaged in an evolutionary process, coming from a lower level of beings to human beings. It’s interesting, because what we see in this passage, we see the fact that there was this moment in history when God gave something to human beings, and it came in stages.
One of the first stages we see in the Old Testament is the story of Adam and Eve, which is the story of the evolution of human beings into the fullness that they’re called to be. The story is so fascinating, because often it’s a story that seems to teach that the reason we have sin in the world is because of this first mistake that Adam and Eve made. And that may be, but what seems more interesting to me is that we’re seeing Adam and Eve as human beings at a particular time in their evolution, and we see something in them that is new. Adam and Eve are then the human race, symbolically, in the story, and they are now with God. And God enters into their life, and God begins to teach them something. “This is what you need to do. This is who you need to become.” And like we teach children in the very beginning, the first thing we give a child, as we begin to train them and teach them how to become fully human, we give them rules and laws. So they had a law, and the law was “Do not eat of this particular tree. Anything else in the garden is yours.” But the most fascinating thing in that story to me is that, when they did eat of the tree that they were told not to, before God found out about it, before they were caught, so to speak, something came over them, and immediately they covered themselves. The word that is used to describe their feeling was shame — shame. Where does shame come from? It has to come not from being accused of something by someone else, but something inside of Adam and Eve somehow said to them, “We know we have done something wrong.” It’s called conscience — conscience.
I remember hearing an advertisement on NPR for a program that was coming up, and the question of the program was do animals have a conscience. I didn’t get the program. I didn’t listen to it. I don't know what they said, but the point is, what I’m saying is that there’s something different from humans and animals that distinguished the humans, and it’s conscience. And so what we’re looking at, perhaps, in that story of Adam and Eve, is the development of human beings growing evermore toward what God has called us to be as a people with a deep interior sense of what is right and what is wrong, not just because we’ve been told, because we somehow know it.
So we have this image of human beings in this first reading, well, in the reading of Genesis, first part of the Bible. We have this image of human beings growing into something more. So that’s what I think James is talking about. He’s talking about there’s this seed planted in us. There’s this life force in us that has to grow, meaning we have to grow into it. We have to become conscious of it, make it part of who we are, but it’s a becoming. It’s not that we just know something. It’s we’re actually becoming someone more developed, more evolved, more like the God who created us.
Now, this sense of right and wrong has to be formed by something objective, and that’s what we see in a major part of the Old Testament. There is this moment in the Old Testament when God said, “All right, people are now ready. Human beings have evolved far enough that I need to give them the most beautiful, most powerful thing I can give them. An absolute clear picture of what they are at their core, who they are, as I made them. They’re a people who need to follow these commandments, these laws, these ten. Don’t add anything to them. They’re perfect just as they are.” And what do these commandments give us? Yes, they give us something we should try to do using our mind and our will, but more importantly, they describe something that’s happening to us when that seed of truth has been placed in us, that these things begin to develop. The first three commandments make it clear that human beings are designed, are made to be in a relationship with a power greater than themselves, with God himself, and what we’re asked to do is recognize that reality. There is a God. He made us. He has a plan for us. He wants to be a part of our life, and so the way we become a part of his life is to pay attention, acknowledge him, spend time with him, the Sabbath day, where we talk to him. As we begin to understand the power that he has, be sure to use that power to know that all the gifts that you have, your capacity to move, to breathe, to think — don’t ever use any of your gifts in a way that are against what he longs for you to become. Don’t use his power, his natural powers — we’re powerful as human beings, because we can think. We can make decisions. We can make things. Don’t do anything with all those gifts you have that make it something that goes against his will. Don’t use your gifts in vain. Don’t use his name that dwells within you in a way that isn’t intended to be used. So we have a relationship with God. We have a nature we need to follow.
Then in this first reading, it’s clear that we’re saying this great gift of the Ten Commandments, the next seven statements, are all about our nature. This is who we are. This is what a human being is made for. When we’re doing these things, we’re in sync with our nature. We’re not being forced to do something that goes against our true nature. It goes against a false nature, a more animal-like nature, a more destructive part of us. It’s so beautiful and so simple. Honor each other. You’re all here to give life to each other. Honor those who give you life. Honor everyone who’s there for you, and whatever you do, don’t kill. Don’t destroy. Don’t lie. Don’t deceive. Don’t cheat. Don’t break promises, and somehow, don’t do anything that goes against this beautiful nature of yours. So no killing, no lying, no stealing, no cheating, but then the most beautiful two last commandments that I think, at least as a child, I never paid much attention to. But they might be the most powerful in terms of God asking you to do things that make your life better and make your relationship with him better, and that is to acknowledge the gift that you are by not coveting, not wanting to be like someone else, not wanting what they have, not wanting their relationships, not wanting their possessions. Think of it. If God has given you and me exactly what we need so that we can become all that we’re called to be, and then we say, “Well, I’d rather look like this, or I’d rather have that. I don’t like this about me.” It’s kind of insulting to a God who’s created you, and all he’s asking you to do is become who he created you to be so you can participate in the most amazing process of lifting the whole human race by becoming yourself and living according to this inner seed produced, growing into consciousness of what it means to be human, what it means to be like the God that created us.
It’s always been fascinating to me that the two things that the serpent said to Adam and Eve — the two things he said, if you eat, this will happen for you, and this reminds me so much of this thing that’s in the core of us. He said, “You’ll never die if you break the law. You’ll never die, and the other thing you’ll do, you’ll become like God.” Well, that’s the promise that God gave to us through Jesus. Jesus said, “If you believe in me, you’ll never die, and if you believe in who I am, you’ll know that I’m in the Father. The Father’s in me. Now I’m going to go into you so that, when I go into you, the Father is in you, and you’ll be like the Father.” Isn’t it interesting? So where was the sin? The sin was here are the goals that are naturally built into your whole DNA, to not die, to become more like the God who created you — that’s God-given truth, but the sin of Adam and Eve was, “I can do that on my own. I don’t need anybody to do it for me. It’s my responsibility. It’s my job to make myself into who I’m supposed to be.” That’s our biggest sin. We still commit it all the time. Maybe that’s what the two commandments about coveting are all about. I want to be more than I am so that I can be happy or please God, when nothing would please me more than being who I am, and nothing would please God more than me taking the role in this life that he’s given me.
So we go then to the gospel, and the gospel is an indication of the frustration of Jesus when he knows what I’ve just described is the work of every man of faith, every leader of any religion, anyone called to teach and preach what God teaches and preaches, wants us to teach and preach. That is to be authentic, to be the person you’re intended to be. That gift of authenticity is so essential, and the opposite of authenticity is hypocrisy. So if authenticity is accepting who you are, believing in who you are and developing it and allowing it to become what it is intended to be, hypocrisy is to create, like an actor, a person that you think you should be. The most interesting thing about hypocrisy and how it infected so much the temple leaders is that there’s in it somehow a seduction that, if you are a public figure, if you’re someone who is in charge, you’re being scrutinized all the time. You’re being seen for who you are. So the image of having to be better than you are, it’s like the bella figura of the church. We do everything for God. Our whole life is about God. The Pharisees had not much love for God, not much understanding of God. Whatever seed was in them seemed to die somewhere, because what took over was the performance, was the way of feeling, if I’m doing something perfectly, if I act perfectly, dress perfectly, go to the places that show that I’m perfect, all those things, that’s the subtle shadow of this enormous adventure. We’re called to be who we are. We also could make up who we think we should be and present that, and then we act as if. What is interesting about people that act as if, their actions become so crucial that they have to be done so perfectly that you understand more the whole notion of all these regulations and rules. Doing them absolutely perfectly implied that you were religiously performing in a perfect way, however, you didn’t get anywhere near the core of religion, which is to love, to forgive, and to care for people. That’s always sloppy and always messy, but no, you can do a ritual perfectly. You can know exactly how to wash your cups and how to wash the bed linens and how to do this, how to do that, and when people say, “Look how perfectly he does what religion is calling him to do,” they presented the false notion of what the God that created them wanted them to be, not performers of perfection but people who were honest and self-reflective and self-critical and wanted to grow, wanted to change and wanted to love. That is what they lost.
Father, your love is a powerful force that nurtures us, enables the seed of truth that you’ve placed within us to grow slowly and to begin to take root and to flourish and to produce abundant fruit. Help us to trust in this process more than we trust in our own efforts, our own struggles. Know that we participate in the most amazing gift, your life within us, your love filling us so that we can feel the abilities that you have mysteriously given us through your presence. Bless us with an awareness of the gifts we are to each other, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.