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The Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 29, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 35:55)

     A somewhat feisty pastor was preaching on today’s Gospel. He gave a very brief homily; it consisted of only three short statements: First, fifty million people are hungry every day on this planet and many of them are not far from us. Second, most of us don’t give a damn. Third, more of you are upset that I said “damn” in church than that fifty million people are starving!

     Happily, I can say with some confidence that you are not among the upset ones! But maybe I got your attention and it does raise a worthwhile point. We can all lose perspective at times: lose sight of what is important and what is not, get caught up in things that turn out to be fairly petty in the grand scheme of things.

     Today’s readings deal with such things: with law and things that look like law but aren’t. Or put it this way: with God’s Law and how people can distort it. Moses is the great spokesperson for the Law, Moses the great Lawgiver. In the reading from Deuteronomy we have Moses reminding the people of what a great gift God’s law was to them. It was the rock-solid foundation of God’s covenant with them – a holy thing, a sacred thing – meant to be a gift, not a burden. The Law was the people’s part in the reciprocal relationship of love that was God’s covenant with Israel. So, we have Moses reminding them that the Law was about life – a full and rich life, and it was about the closeness of God to his people. No other nation, he reminded them, has statutes and decrees as just as theirs.

     So, there we have law at it best. A gift from God, an invitation to freedom not a shackle, an enticement to walk in love.

      In the gospel, we get quite a different view of law in the exchange between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees. The Scribes and Pharisees, at their best, were good, God-fearing teachers who revered the Law and kept it down to the last jot and tittle. But so absorbed were they with the Law that they could often confuse it with things that were not part of the Law at all: traditions that no doubt had some value and reason for being, but were merely that: human traditions – rituals and practices that too often took on an importance they didn’t deserve. The exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and scholars of the Law in today’s gospel shows just how wide of the mark they could get. They completely missed the good things that Jesus and his disciples were doing and instead zeroed in on the fact that they weren’t observing all the minute traditions with regard to things like washing hands before meals. That tradition served a good a purpose, of course, but it was entirely secondary to the far more important things that Jesus and his disciples were doing; preaching the gospel and healing the sick.

      And Jesus spared no words in reminding them that God and people are always more important than even the most hallowed of traditions. “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,” he said, “when he wrote, ‘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.’”

     Now let me offer a couple of examples of how this mentality is alive and well today. Pope Francis recently caused quite a stir when he imposed new limits on the celebration of the so-called Tridentine or pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. Now, there’s no question that the old Latin Mass had its beautiful aspects (I grew up with it), but in recent years it has become something of a rallying point for people who oppose not just the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council, but the entire agenda of the Council, including things like ecumenism, religious liberty, our relationship with other world religions, our relationship as a Church to the modern world and, indeed, the very nature of the Church itself. In other words, there was a clear case of – to quote today’s gospel – people “clinging to human traditions” (that’s what the old Latin Mass is, after all – a human tradition) – putting human traditions above weightier matters. And it would be hard to think of many weightier matters than the sweeping vision and the great accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council. No wonder, then, that when the Pope canvassed the bishops of the world, they were nearly unanimous in making it clear to him that the Latin Mass had become a serious problem in their dioceses — a source of real division, as indeed it had.

     Another example. I think of the hue and cry Pope Francis got from some quarters a few years ago when he issued his ground-breaking encyclical, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The encyclical sets forth in a beautiful, compelling - and, I think, almost breathtaking manner - the Church’s teaching about marriage, but the fact that the Pope opened up even a small possibility under carefully defined circumstances for a divorced and re-married Catholic to receive Holy Communion without going through the Church annulment process was too much for some. They screamed heresy at the Pope, thereby lining themselves up with the Scribes and Pharisees who made life so difficult for Jesus.

     How well Jesus would have understood this, how well he does understand it. So much of his ministry was spent in dealing with people intent on trapping him in his speech, small-minded heresy hunters, people convinced that they and they alone were the guardians of truth and orthodoxy.

     Today’s second reading from the letter of James gets at the heart of this in one verse: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

     My friends, the question before us today is: what is really important and what is less so when it comes to religion? What comes first? Human laws and traditions, or people? It’s people. And it’s love!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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