In the readings today, my brothers and sisters, we seem to have conflicting messages. We hear Moses in the book of Deuteronomy telling the Israelites that in their observance of the commandments of the Lord, they are not to add to what is commanded nor subtract from it. He tells the Israelites to observe the law carefully. However, in the gospel story from Mark, the law-abiding Pharisees ask a perfectly good question of Jesus. They ask why his disciples do not follow the law when it comes to preparing for a meal. Jesus rebukes them, and he calls them hypocrites. So we might ask ourselves, which is it Lord? Are we to follow the law carefully, or are we free to do what we please?
Scholars add up the laws given by Moses, and they come to a total of more than 600. That’s a lot of laws to keep track of, and you can see how a believer might focus on following the laws rather than integrating them into one complete relationship with God. Yet it was for the purpose of having a relationship with God that Moses gave the law. Our relationship with God we call the covenant. Unlike a contract, a covenant has no clauses. It is a powerful statement of personal commitment. As the Israelites were leaving Egypt for the Promised Land, the Lord said to Moses, “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God.”
Fast-forward to Jesus’s earthly ministry. Jesus was an observant Jew. He followed the law of Moses. He was called Rabbi, or teacher, because he followed of the law of Moses in such a way that others wanted to follow his example. Yet, as the Pharisees noted, his disciples did not follow the law when it came to purifying themselves before they ate.
The Pharisees are presented in the Gospels as double-minded. They are manipulators of the people, rather than fathers to the people. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume they asked the question honestly.
It seems to me that the dynamic in the two readings is there to remind us that our faith is integral or “of a piece,” and that it is a personal relationship between God and us. In the Old Testament, God said: I will be your God and you will be my people. Jesus said in the upper room during the Last Supper: I no longer call you my servant but my friend. Our lives as Christians must be rooted in our relationship with our Lord. St. James reminds us in the Epistle today that our relationship is an active relationship. We must live out our faith, and our actions should reflect our belief.
Jesus knew the hearts of these Pharisees who asked him the question. He knew it was a dishonest question. And he exposed them by quoting the prophet Isaiah and called them hypocrites. Jesus in other places in the gospels makes his claim that he has come to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. St. Paul in his letters explains that the purpose of the law was to show us that we are not without sin, and that we must depend on God for everything because everything comes from him.
Rules and regulations are barriers to our freedom, but they are there for our growth. The 600 rules of the Mosaic law were 600 facets of the beautiful diamond that in 600 ways reflected the relationship between God and his children. The teachings of the Catholic Church today are like the rules of the Mosaic law. These teachings and faith practices are the many ways that we come to know, to love, and to serve the one God who created us all and will save us from the fires of hell. If we choose to follow some but not all, we will end up like a man who chooses to breathe underwater like a fish. We are free to try it, but it will be the death of us.
The truth of God is bigger than anything we can imagine. It is infinite. It is eternal. We do not have the words to describe it. We should therefore, approach it with due reverence and due acknowledgment of God’s infinity and our inadequacy. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and the scribes, because they approach God’s laws insincerely. The Pharisees are not actually asking their question to learn the truth; they are asking so they can attack this new prophet.
Fast forward to today. Some of our religious leaders are now revealed to be Pharisees: double-minded and selective about following the teaching of the church. In the gospel reading today, Jesus says that the evil comes from within our hearts, that it begins with evil thoughts, and from those thoughts come sinful actions. What are we, the sheep of the flock, to do when some of the most senior shepherds are revealed to be duplicitous, to honor God with their lips but having hearts far from him?
I suggest to you that the most effective thing that you and I can do as individual Catholics in this time when the church is rocked by scandal, is to make sure that we know and embrace our doctrines and dogmas. We cannot abandon the church, for it is the way to salvation. We need not abandon the church, for it is protected by the Holy Spirit. Our eyes have been opened to the fact that senior shepherds of this infallible church are deeply fallible in their personal lives. But the church is more than its senior leadership. We are the church as much as the Cardinals are the church. We need to know and pass on the good news as much as the Cardinals need to know it and pass it on. We need to respect the Cardinals, but we should never outsource our understanding of our faith to any remote church leader.
At St. Catherine’s of Siena we are blessed to have a rich offering of adult faith formation so that we can increase our understanding of what the church teaches. Not all of us are called to be heroically brave like St. Catherine and call the church leaders to account for their infidelity to the teaching. But all of us are called to know our faith like Saint Catherine. She studied her faith. She read her Scriptures. She prayed her prayers. She served her fellow man. She loved her brother. All of these actions served to build in her a complete relationship with God. She is a great model for us as we seek to develop our relationship with God.
I encourage you to take advantage of the faith formation offerings in our parish, and in our archdiocese, so that you know your faith. If you know your faith, then you will be able to discern whenever the leaders have departed from the authentic teaching of the church. Their departure should not cause your departure. We are not called to judge, but we are called to know the truth so that we can discern it and know the difference between good and evil. We close every Mass with the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. Our last words at Mass are an acknowledgment that the devil is active in the world, and he is seeking the ruin of souls. Let us arm ourselves against him and all his evil spirits that prowl about the world.