Twenty-second Sunday:Laws and Dependency on God
The start of the school year is a time of excitement for the children, Teens and parents. It is a time to embrace challenges in the classroom, on the athletic field, in the band, and in all sorts of extracurricular activities. It is also a time of rules, regulations and laws. There are rules for parents in the drop off and pickup of the little children, in informing the school when a child is sick, in dealing with interaction with teachers and administrators. There are all sorts of rules for the children in Teens, where they can and can’t go, behavior in the classrooms, halls, etc, rules regarding homework and tests, etc. Then there are the home rules Mom and Dad enforce to be sure the children get enough sleep and get their school work done. The start of the school year also brings additional laws for the general public. There are traffic rules to abide by in school zones and when school buses stop. The rules, laws and regulations that involve the school year reflect the general reason why we have laws to start with: for the protection of society and, ultimately, the happiness of individuals. The eleven year old sixth grader who is scolded for running in the hallway may not understand this, but he is much happier in one piece than hurt.
There are also rules, regulations, and laws that guide our relationship with God. That is what today’s readings are about, all three readings, really, but obviously in Deuteronomy and Mark. In Deuteronomy the people are happy because the Law allows them to follow their God. Moses told the people, “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?" The ancient Hebrews always felt that the Law was a blessing, a personal guide from the Almighty.
In Mark Jesus tells the scribes and pharisees that they are hypocrites when they are more concerned about the law than the reason for the law. They are concerned with they way they wash their hands and cups and dishes because their were sanitary laws that needed to be followed, but they were not concerned with cleaning the evil within their hearts that was manifesting itself in theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil thoughts, etc etc.
We are tempted to take one of two extremes when it comes to following God’s law. We can feel that there is no reason for any law governing our conduct and claim that we have the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it, no matter what effect this has on our relationship with others or with God. The problem is that the person who claims to be free to do whatever he wants finds himself incapable of being free to love. And that is the only freedom that matters. For example, the person who cheats on his spouse and says, when caught, “Deal with it, I have a right to my own happiness,” really isn’t happy at all but is in constant tension and battle with himself or herself as well as others. When, eventually, the person realizes that he has lost his family, or their respect, or both, he then realizes that he has lost his happiness. It is sad that the person who rejects living a moral life ends up rejecting God. Then the person loses his Center, his purpose for being. Pope John Paul II said that “Freedom of conscience is never freedom from the truth but freedom in the truth.” Jesus is the Truth.
The other extreme is the person who is concerned with the intimate following of the law as his or her way to win God’s approval. We all tend to do this, as though our actions will make God happy. We really have everything in reverse. God loves us and showers us with His Mercy and Compassion. Our following the moral life is our response to His Love, not that which occasions His Love.
The stickler, the second person judges everyone’s relationship with God according to the way he or she is following the laws. He is absolutely convinced that he is better than everyone else. That is hypocrisy. Jesus did not die to create a society of "better than thous". He died so that each of us can be better than we are.
And here is where we have the beauty of our Catholic faith life, our Catholic morality. Our Catholic faith is profoundly realistic. It recognizes that we are human beings tempted to make bad as well as good choices. We are in continual need of having our course to the Lord refined and even restored. We believe that the Lord established the sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, not because we are so good but because we all have tendencies to be so bad. There is an old hackneyed expression which contains a great deal of wisdom. "Be patient with me, God isn't through with me yet." He's not through with any of us and will not be through until the time for our making free choices is over.
It sounds like a contradiction, but the person who ignores the law of God and the person who thinks he can use the law of God to force God to reward him both make the same mistake. Their mistake is that neither recognizes their dependency on God. The first person thinks he has no need for God. The second person takes the Power of God upon Himself.
This week is the twenty-first anniversary of the death of Fr. John LaTondress. Perhaps, to most of you he is just a name on the side of the chapel. But to those of us who lived with him, whom he cared for, Fr. John was a bright light of God’s love in our family. He laughed with us, he prayed for us and he told us over and over again that God loves us. And just as we loved Fr. John because we saw God in Him, God loves us because He sees His reflection in us. Isn’t that the reason why parents love their children? You see God’s love in them. It certainly is the reason why I love you so much. So often I am blessed with seeing God in you.
We can’t find God if we ignore His Presence and live for ourselves. We can’t find God if we are selfish and immoral, both are the same. Nor can we find God if we think we can force His Mercy by doing or avoiding some external actions but remaining rotten within ourselves.
Our focus needs to be on the Mercy and Compassion of God that we experience in Jesus Christ. We need Him. Nothing else matters. James, in the second reading, gets to the heart of how to live our faith. He says, “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.” That’s all we have to do to be tied to God, religious. We just need to care for those who are helpless and avoid the defilement of the world. God will do the rest.