03 September 2006

What Comes Out Matters

22nd Sun: Dt 4.1-2, 6-8; Jas 1.17-18, 21-22, 27; Mk 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas

Eat five fruits and vegetables daily. Drink six to eight 8 oz. glasses of water daily. Don’t skip breakfast. Eat protein and good carbs six times a day. Don’t eat after eight o’clock at night. “Fat-free” doesn’t mean “calorie-free”—read the label! Take smaller portions and chew slowly. Wear a tight belt at meals. Don’t eat alone. Green socks will distract you during meals. Eat left-handed. Stick grapefruit seeds behind your ears to rev-up your metabolism. Watch back to back episodes of the surgery channel while eating—especially when they do the eyes! Eat naked in front of a mirror. Eat with your hands. Let someone else feed you. But under no circumstances are you to allow someone else to feed you while eating naked in front of a mirror wearing green socks with grapefruit seeds stuck behind your ears! That’s just silly. And we don’t want to be silly about what we put into our bodies, do we?

We have our own food-based prohibitions, don’t we? Long lists of what we will and will not eat. Long lists of fatty foods, fried foods, sugary foods, animal-based foods, artificially sweetened foods, high-carb foods, foods made from refined flour, foods from politically suspect countries, foods from politically suspect regions of the country, foods from certain corporations, foods made by non-union workers or maybe made by union workers…all sorts of prohibitions that give breath and voice to the virtues we want to cultivate and the vices we want to kill. There is one list of forbidden foods we do not have, however—a list of naughty foods given to us by God. God says, “Graze freely and fairly and share with those who can’t.” Not a bestseller…but the rule effectively illustrates the point Jesus is making to the Pharisees and scribes.

Once again Jesus finds himself having to teach the teachers of the Law the first meaning of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of violating the traditions of the elders when they eat without washing their hands. Essentially, the disciples are ignoring the purification rituals done before meals. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus accuses his opponents of ignoring the Father’s commandment to honor Him in their hearts. They are doing little more than offering “lip service,” literally, they are “serving God only with their lips” when they merely ritually wash their hands. It’s a show. To be seen. A show to be seen by those who expect public displays of piety, religious theatre in plain view.

In opposition to this, Jesus teaches: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” This is not a simple reversal of conventional social values. Jesus isn’t “turning things upside down.” He is simply teaching the Law as it was given and showing now how it has matured: righteousness with God is a right relationship offered in love, accepted in total awe, and lived in the service of others. We are completed in God’s love and by God’s love as we use our God-given gifts to serve others. If you find yourself obsessed with the regulatory minutiae, the picayune procedure, the jots and tittles of public religiosity, you might want to consider again the passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes to the Pharisees: “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.”

So, how do we honor God with our hearts and not just our lips? How do we worship Him in the true Spirit with love?

We hear in the letter of James: to honor God the Father with His Son through the Holy Spirit, we come to see that everything we have and everything we are is His gift to us. We come to see that He gave us birth by the word of truth, that we are knitted together with the every breath of truth and pushed out into the world graced as the firstfruits of His creation. We humbly welcome, we joyously receive the Word planted in us, that spirit of beauty and goodness that God completes in His love and that comes to save our souls. We are doers of this Word in the world not just hearers of it. We make His Word real, we give His word in us hands and feet, lips and tongues. We give His Word function, practicality, work, purpose, and finished goals. If His word remains in us unused, it will become a fragile thing easily broken by sin, quickly shattered by private doubt, or perhaps die from lack of charitable attention. And if we feed His Word nothing more than religiosity, mere ritual and mechanical prayer, or even worse, superstition dressed up as devotion, we risk blasphemy by using His name vainly, using His name to no purpose other than public show.

Pure religion, that is, a clean relationship with God is both interior and exterior, one leading the other and the other pushing the first: you serving others to serve God and you keep yourself undefiled by the world, unmoved by the prizes the world seeks after. Murder, theft, adultery, idolatry, folly, greed all come from within, all come from a heart darkened by a will untamed in truth and beauty, a heart closed to the Word planted in its muscle. To strengthen that Word, to bring it fresh blood and clean air, open your ears to hear, open your eyes to see; hear and see the Gospel, the whole Gospel of love that Christ preached—our perfection in obedience to the Father’s will, our completion as vigorous members of the Body, our growth as men and women in love with being servants to one another, and our joy in honoring Him who made us His people, His nation, His prophets and His priests.

To do him honor, purify your heart with a clean sacrifice of service, a spotless gift of unselfish work for someone who needs your hands for their own good. It is not enough that we carefully attend to the religious duties and the canonical obligations of being Catholics. We can certainly start there, but if we will mature beyond needing the spiritual training wheels of the Law, if we would worship the Lord in Spirit and in Truth, in the fullness of His revelation and His perfecting grace, we will seek Him, find, Him, and serve Him, for His greater glory, among those thrown out, cast off, abandoned, and shamed. If we will do Him honor as your Father and Lord, we will uncover His forgiving Word, reveal His love, and put His compassion to work for the weakest among us. On the cross, He made Himself the least among us to serve us. Now, to serve the least is to serve the best.

What goes in—food, ritual, Law—all matter but not finally. What comes out measures your soul, weighs your spirit against the promises you’ve made. Eating naked in front of a mirror takes some courage. Standing naked before the Lord…well, that takes more than courage; that takes trust…and bruises and skinned knees and dirty hands and a sunburn and some sweat. It also takes the humility to say without flinching: how may I serve?!

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