Friday, August 28, 2015

Obedience from the heart: The twenty second sunday in Ordinary Time

In this twenty second Sunday in ordinary time the Church offers us a series of readings that center on the nature of true obedience. One of the most important questions that one can ask is: what does it mean to obey God? In turning to this week’s readings, we find valuable guidance regarding the obedience that God requires, beginning with our first reading from Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8.
FIRST READING: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8.
Moses said to the people:
“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
which I am teaching you to observe,
that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land
which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin upon you,
you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
Observe them carefully,
for thus will you give evidence
of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations,
who will hear of all these statutes and say,
‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?"
In giving Israel his law, God offers his own people the roadmap for obedience and, in particular, the obedience that leads to life (Deut 4:2, Lev 18:5). Moreover, in obeying God, Israel’s virtue serves to demonstrate to the entire world that Israel’s God is the true God, for no other nation has gods so close to it as the LORD.

However, mere external obedience to the law is not sufficient, for Moses states that Israel is to love God with all their heart (Deut 6:4-8) and Moses vividly elaborates on this mandate by calling on Israel to circumcise their hearts in order to love and obey God (Deut 10:10-16). To do so, is life; failure to do so leads to exile.

In Deut 30:1-6, it is clear that the curse of exile is inevitable, and it seems right to infer that this is due to Israel’s inability to circumcise their collective hearts. Instead, upon return from exile it is God who will circumcise Israel’s heart so that they would be enabled to obey him.

In turning to the responsorial Psalm, we are able to see why such an action on God’s part is so important, namely, true justice is necessary for living in his presence.

R. (1a) One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord. Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
shall never be disturbed.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Here the Psalmist offers an overview of what true justice constitutes, including walking blamelessly, not slandering or harming his neighbor, nor accepting a bride against the innocent. Is it possible to unite these various aspects of true justice around a major concept or theme?

I would suggest yes, and it is the metaphor of the heart. According to the Psalmist, the one who does justice is the one who thinks the truth in his heart, a suggestion that is not far from Moses’ command for Israel to circumcise their collective hearts.

With this being said, the exile of both Israel and Judah points to just how difficult it is for the people of God to have internal justice of the heart, something that both Deuteronomy 30, as well the prophets Jeremiah (31:31-34) and Ezekiel (36-37) saw as something that God would produce in his people upon return from exile.

Jumping ahead to the Gospel reading, Jesus turns to the theme of the heart and its primacy in regard to the life of true obedience.

SECOND READING: James 1: 17-18, 21b-22, 27
Dearest brothers and sisters:
All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.
He willed to give us birth by the word of truth
that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you
and is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
 GOSPEL: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem
gathered around Jesus,
they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals
with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
—For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews,
do not eat without carefully washing their hands,
keeping the tradition of the elders.
And on coming from the marketplace
they do not eat without purifying themselves.
And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed,
the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. —
So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him,
“Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders
but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
He responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

He summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.

“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Without getting into the complicated discussion regarding various traditions held by the Pharisees, it is most important to focus on how Jesus centers obedience primarily on the heart. Jesus is clear: nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile, that is, from the heart.

What does this mean? It doesn’t mean that regardless of what you do, as long as your heart is in the right place the action is necessarily good. Instead, it means that true justice is constituted primarily by one’s character.

If so, then right actions will necessarily follow, the kind of actions described by James in the second reading, care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. However, if someone lacks internal character, then no external action alone can necessarily solve their moral “heart problem."

Why is this so? To turn to the Apostle Paul, it is because humanity has a “heart problem,” that is, humanity is prisoner to the disordered desires of the heart (Rom 1:24). Rather than excluding Israel, Paul is equally clear that Israel has a heart problem as well, for apart from the work of Christ their hearts remain uncircumcised (Rom 2:28-29).

What is the solution? The gospel itself, for Paul is equally clear that in the gospel God’s justice is available through the person and work of Jesus Christ. In particular, God reveals his justice through the atoning sacrifice of Christ wherein God is both just and the justifier of those who are of the faith of Christ (Rom 3:22-26), for through believing in Christ “in the heart,” humanity is restored to true internal justice (Rom 10:10). Or to put this in the language of Deut 30:6: through believing in the heart humanity’s corporate heart is circumcised and the true exile has ended.

It is a perennial temptation to link true obedience to God to merely external obedience, ranging from service to those in need to a life committed to prayer. While prayer and service are both absolutely necessary, they are not alone sufficient for true obedience, for our readings demonstrate that obedience requires justice in the heart.

It is easy to think of grace as merely something that allows us to be safe before God, turning grace into a divine transaction. While grace certainly allows for us to stand before God unafraid, the reason is not due to a merely transactional account but instead that grace is God’s gift that empowers us to be obedient from the heart and share in his divine life.

When we come to Mass this Sunday and hear these readings, it is important to ask God for his empowering grace such that our hearts would be conformed to Christ’s and thereby have in our hearts the restorative justice of God that defines the life of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:3-9).

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