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A Matter of the Heart

After Mass a few Sunday’s back, a young man asked me about what is more important faith or good works? I thought to myself. I thought that old battle between Catholics and Protestants over a reference the Letter of James in this weekend’s second reading was over long ago. But someone resurrected it. A mid-1960’s poll of American Catholics asked “Which is the more important law: love of neighbor or not eating meat on Friday?” To the shame of our church of that time, the majority responded, “Not eating meat on Friday.”

Defilement. What pollutes the heart? James said religion that is pure and undefiled is anchored in “care” for the least…”widows and orphans.” He encouraged his Church to be “doers,” not just “hearers” of God’s Word. Law-keeping in the book of Deuteronomy, written about 500 years before James had a very specific goal, “that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” Since there’s only this life, one should make the most of it. We are always sitting at the edge of the Promised Land.

Jesus takes the Pharisees to task because ulterior motives were soiling whatever good might have come from details from the heart of the law - a new heart centered in love of God and neighbor. In some cases, Pharisees manipulated the law for their own personal benefit. But more often they just organized their world into two tight opposing religious camps: us and them. Scholars tell us this battle with Pharisees went well into the early years of the Christian era. Some became Christians, but dragged along old thinking to the interpretation of the Gospel. On one side were the people of traditions, practices and rituals, dress and religious image. And on the other side recovering sinners, people of heart and humanness, restored by grace and Spirit.

We see a massive epidemic of pharisaic thinking again these days along the issue “Catholic Identity.” Wearing the right garb, reading the right books, praying to the right icons and following the right rules, guarantees heaven. A new Pharisaic rigidity among often the very young who want a Catholicism they never had, and the elders who want it put back the way it was in their childhood, segregates us. There is subtle religious violence in it. Life often has more areas of gray between the “right way” and, “the high way!”

Jesus challenged this perspective. Good and evil are first matters of interior intent. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has a powerful insight, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” T.S. Eliot, in “Murder in the Cathedral,” poses this paradox: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” There is hardly any moral certainty that relieves us of discernment - a great word for what would Jesus say?

Ultimately, grace replaced law, not by excusing us from rules, but by inviting us deeper to the spirit of the rule by writing the law on our hearts. Life in the Promised Land begins not out of fear or conformity, but from a change of heart. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for using their status as teachers to judge others. Maybe that is the problem the Pope was getting to in his remark on the plane after World Youth Day, “Who am I to judge?” Incise the judgment out of our thinking and we find an incredible serenity settle in its place.

A gentle week.
Fr. Michael

Thanks to Celebration’s Pat Marrin for some of the above refection.



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