22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
I grew up as a Baptist hearing about the idol-worshiping Cat-licks and how they didn't really know Jesus because salvation for them was just about lighting candles and rattling rosary beads. Cat-licks put their faith in vain rituals and not eating meat on Fridays and whispering their sins to some guy in box. They think the Pope is God, and they aren't allowed to read the Bible! Of course, we all know this is nonsense. But it would be easy for someone who isn't Catholic to get confused. Watching us (as a stranger) must be a surreal experience. We do have statues, candles, rituals, rosaries, and. . .some guy in a box. If your faith is purely intellectual – that is, not incarnated in world – then all of our sacramental prayer and use of the things of the world in worship must look terribly pagan. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to run into Catholics who do themselves and the Church no favors by living up to the stereotypes our Baptist brothers and sisters hold. So, Jesus reminds us that it is not religious procedures or processes that save us. It's a humble and contrite heart sacrificed to God that gets us into heaven.
I've run into Catholics who insist that This or That prayer guarantees the user the exact results prayed for whether God wills it or not. As if God is somehow forced to grant us a wish b/c the ritual was performed correctly. That's witchcraft not Catholicism. God is not a genie bound to our will by incantations. The Pharisees, attempting to observe God's law carefully as Moses said, built up over time an elaborate ritualistic code that purported to insure the believer he or she was always in compliance with the Law. As these thing do, the code inevitable became the Law and merely following the code was sufficient in fulfilling the Law. Procedures, processes, vain rituals substituted for the sacrifice of a humble and contrite heart. So Jesus accuses the Pharisees: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” The Pharisees had kept the script but lost the plot. Jesus wants us to remember the plot and live it. Reciting our lines and acting the part isn't enough. Showing up for Mass, saying your lines, paying your dues, and not eating meat on Friday doesn't cut it. We've not been hired to play the role of Catholics on a cosmic stage. We've been saved to live our lives in the world as men and women being perfected into Christs.
We like our rules, we Catholics. We like our bright lines and hard sayings. We even yearn for the occasional tough talk from Father or Bishop. But we also enjoy the idea that living out our faith is mostly about coloring within the wide lines of procedure. Staying just close enough to the world that we aren't too terribly inconvenienced by the rules but far enough away that the stench of hell can't overpower the bayou. We can live our whole lives walking that edge and never once think that what we've signed onto is about sacrifice and surrender, praise and thanksgiving. So, allow me to say this plainly: if you think being a good Catholic is about doing the absolute bare minimum required by Church law, then you might be a baptized Pharisee! The bare minimum is there as the final net before you experience the stench of hell up close and personal. It's meant as a final warning, a last call, and does little more than prevent you from going Full Pagan. You're here this afternoon and that's great. There's a hurricane on the way. But you're here. Now, have you sacrificed your heart – humble and contrite – to the Father? Have you given everything you have and are to Him for Him to shape you into another Christ for the salvation of the world? Celebrating Mass is an excellent step in the right direction.
Jesus teaches us that the traditions of man won't save us. The rules of religious etiquette won't save us. Saying 10,000 rapid-fire rosaries won't save us. Neither will donating a wad of cash to the parish or taking Father to the Saints game. What will save us, what has saved us is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. The Son became Man so that Man might become the Son. That's our job as followers of Christ – to become Christ in this world for this world. To do that we have to do more than live as baptized Pharisees. Jesus says that it's what's in the heart of a person that defiles. He lists off several common sins – adultery, theft, murder, deceit. What all of these sins have in common is the failure to love as Christ loves us. IOW, a failure to be Christ when that is exactly what we've all agreed to be. No doubt our resolve to become Christs will be tested as we ride out another hurricane. This isn't the first or the last time we'll be tested. To pass the test we look to Christ. And we do what he did: we sacrifice for the love he showed us on the Cross. We become everything he died to make possible for us to become.