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SEPTEMBER 3, 2006: TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I grew up trying frantically to keep all sorts of religious rules and regulations. I was afraid of spending eternity in hell, or a big part of pre-eternity in purgatory. It didn't make a lot of difference whether God or the church created the laws. The only way to get into heaven was to obey them.

Moses obviously wasn't raised Catholic. In today's Deuteronomy passage he commands his people to ". . . hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe . . . ," but he never mentions anything about getting into heaven or avoiding purgatory. He gives only two reasons for obeying those God-given laws: ". . . that you may live, and may enter into and take possession of the land which Yahweh . . . is giving you."

There's a reason for Moses' omission: he lived 1,100 years before Jews began to believe in a heaven as we know it today. For the greater part of the Hebrew Scriptures, people obeyed God's laws only because, by doing so, they achieved a long, fulfilling life. All their moral perks revolved around this world; the only world ancient Jews knew.

But even Jesus and his first followers didn't put all their eggs into the eternal life basket. Though as Pharisees they believed in an afterlife, they seemed, like Moses, to be more concerned with the quality of this life than I was taught to be as a child.

Notice, for instance, when Jesus emphasizes the difference between divine laws and human laws in today's gospel pericope, he never mentions anything abut getting into heaven. On the contrary, in the example he offers of creating human loopholes to avoid God's commands - an example which, for some unexplained reason, is omitted from our liturgical passage - he points out how the poor quality of life which older parents endure is made such by the human-created belief that doing God's will permits one to ignore one's responsibilities toward others. (He'll return to this theme in chapter 12 when he complains about the poor widow giving her last penny for the upkeep of the temple.)

Mark's Jesus is determined to remind us of the kind of life we live when we not only confuse God's laws with human regulations, but give priority to the latter. Chances are the human laws will come flavored with the "within" of our human nature: ". . . evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly."

No wonder, as James teaches, we must continually reach "outside" ourselves to surface God's laws; as he puts it, to discover what is "from above." Only God's word can offer us a "religion that is pure and undefiled." It's that word which tells us ". . . to care for orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

As I mentioned above, one of the problems we had before Vatican II was confusing God's laws with church laws. Somehow they were presented to us as being of equal value and force. One could go to hell as quickly for missing Mass on Sunday as for murdering one's neighbor. Though human regulations are necessary for the smooth and efficient operation of any institution, they don't change the quality of our lives as deeply and permanently as God's regulations do.

Shortly after my mid-sixties ordination, I remember reading the results of a national survey of Catholics which revolved around one question: "Which is the more important law, to give up meat on Friday or to love your neighbor?"

A majority responded, "To give up meat on Friday."

No wonder we Catholics needed Vatican II. Though we were obeying all the church laws, we weren't making much headway in changing the way people lived and benefited from their lives. That only comes from obeying God's laws.