22ndSunday of Ordinary Time year B 2018:
I always love reading St. James’ letter. I find that he is very down to earth and practical. I really like the line from today’s reading: “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” I think that St. James is describing a disconnect that many of us feel from time to time. We want to do the right thing. But, if we are honest, we do not do the right thing. We hear the Word of God, but we find it tough to live it out. Or maybe this is just me?
It seems to me that the Pharisees are being challenged by Jesus for the same gap, the same disconnect. They are passing along the teachings of the Bible, but he is pointing out that they are not getting to the deep truth of the law. Concerned with actions, they are missing something. It is good for us to pay attention, because if we stay concerned with actions alone, we will miss something too.
Whenever we read the gospels it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about the Pharisees as being bad people. They tend to get the brunt of Jesus’ wrath. We can even use the word Pharisee as an insult right? Don’t be a Pharisee… But, Pharisees were anything but bad people. Pharisees were religious leaders. They were teachers of the Torah. They studied the scriptures. They tried to live the commands. They tried to teach others to live God’s commands too. In fact, I often think that they had my job. As pastor, my job is to receive God’s word. To put it into action in my own life and to teach other people how to put it into action.
So, where do they go wrong? In today’s gospel, they are focusing on the washing of hands. Which, I think all of us will agree is a good thing to do, right? I mean we all agree that cleanliness is a good thing. And I hope that none of us would say that Jesus is teaching us to break the laws or the commandments. Actually, what Jesus is doing is showing us that we need to go deeper. What is the cause of the gap between being hearers and doers of the word? What is the gap between wanting to do the right thing, and not being able to do it. Simple: the gap is the human heart.
Perhaps the most radical thing that Jesus did was to extend the gospel into the hearts of the faithful. You see, the law does a great job of telling us about our conduct: do not kill, do not commit adultery, etc. But, Jesus wants more. He wants his love and mercy to live in our hearts. The grace of the New Testament is that God can change us from the inside out.
The Pharisees probably never considered that a person could have a new heart. Perhaps they never considered that a person could get rid of anger, but they could stop from killing people. Perhaps they never considered that a person could get rid of lust, but they could stop from committing adultery. I think we would all agree that abstaining from murder and adultery is really great. But, if we are still holding on to anger, jealousy, lust, envy, etc. We will never be truly free.
Focusing on the externals is much easier than the conversion of the heart. This is why Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees today. Of course it’s important to follow the commandments, but to live freedom to the fullest requires a new heart.
So, how do we get this new heart? Number 1: prayer. God can change us from the inside out. But, he doesn’t do it against our will. Prayer is a time for us to call on God and to invite him in. “Lord, change my heart. Give me your grace. Take away my anger, fill me with compassion.” These prayers are really effective. And, we only have to pray like this for the rest of our lives. So, no better time than to start today.
A second step would be to bring some conscious awareness to your thoughts and emotions. How many of us can even say that we recognize that we are being affected by anger, jealousy or the lot? Yet, we might say that we are struggling with sin. Jesus tells us that all sin starts in the heart. So, if we take some time to bring awareness to what is going on in our internal life, we might find the roots of some of our issues.
Third, it can be really helpful to reach out to another person. If we are carrying around any number of negative feelings and emotions, it can feel overpowering at times. It’s really hard to change our lives when we are burdened with these things. Yet, by sharing what is going on with a trusted friend, the burden seems a little lighter. Also, I find that journaling really helps. To get negative stuff down on paper helps to take away its power.
Prayer, awareness, and assistance. These things can really help to give us a new heart, one that is full of love and goodness. Because, the Pharisees had one thing right, we do need to follow the commandments. But, Christ has something even more amazing in mind. He wants us to live a true life of freedom, inside and out. And isn’t that what we all want?