Tuesday February 10, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30) Gospel (St. Mark 7:1-13)
In the Gospel reading today, Our Lord chastises the Pharisees for disregarding God’s commandments and clinging to mere human tradition. This is something that any one of us can certainly fall into. We know what the commandments of God say, we know what the Church teaches, and yet sometimes (because we maybe do not like what it is that God wants us to do) we tend to do other things; and we make other things almost as if they are something that is divine. In the way that we follow certain traditions that are handed on in our own families or in certain areas, what winds up happening is we follow those very carefully, very closely, and yet the very things that God asks us to do in Scripture, well, we tend to disregard those. The things that the Church teaches, if we do not agree with them, we tend to ignore them; yet we scrupulously follow these other things that have no basis in anything.
It is not that the other things in and of themselves are bad or wrong, some of them may even be very good. For instance, if you look at the example from the Gospel today, it is about washing one’s hands before eating. I do not suspect there is a single parent here today who has ever suggested to their kids that they should not wash their hands before dinner. It is a very reasonable and prudent thing to do. However, when we put it on the scale of the things that are asked of us by God, it is nothing. So while it is good and reasonable, we tend to follow things like that even today rather scrupulously, at least with regard to small children. If you go into any restaurant, there are signs plastered all over the wall for any of the employees about the necessity of washing their hands and how important all these things are. Again, it is very reasonable, but it is not the Word of God.
And so, when the Lord tells us what we are supposed to do, we cling to all of these other things. For us, to wash our hands is not really considered a religious thing; it is just a prudent thing. But there are lots of things that people fall into, little traditions that are quasi-religious that get passed on in families, and those sorts of things we follow with amazing scrupulosity. But the things of God we disregard without thinking twice about them. The commandments that Our Lord gives to us are not easy ones for us to deal with, and because they are rather black and white, we tend to think, “Well, because they’re extreme I can’t ever do them anyway; so therefore, I don’t have to.” Love your enemies; pray for your persecutors; love one another as I have loved you. These are not necessarily easy things. Take up your cross daily and follow Me. We do not really like that idea. We want ease and comfort, so we disregard God’s commandments for something that we have decided is more important or is better somehow than what God would want.
But when we look at the first reading and what Solomon says in his prayer, he says, “You hear the prayers of those who follow your law, of those who are faithful.” Well, we can come to daily Mass and we can have our prayer time set aside, but if we are not trying to get our lives in order – that is, to get our lives in such a way that they conform to the teachings and the life of Jesus Christ, –what good is it all? The whole goal of our lives is to become another Christ, to grow into such holiness that it is the Lord Who is living in us and through us. We disregard His commandments, yet we can stand before Him and say, “But, Lord, I went to daily Mass! I prayed everyday; I prayed my Rosary and I had time set aside for prayer!” He says, “But you disregarded My commandments. I never commanded that you had to go to Mass everyday, but I did command that you have to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. I did command that you have to love one another. I did command that you have to become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And we will say, “But those are extreme. That’s not humanly possible. The psychologists said that can’t be done, so therefore it’s not possible for that to be done.” He will say, “I am God, and I commanded you to do these things.” Obviously, they can be done or He would not have commanded it.
How easily we set aside the commandments of God and we pick and choose what we would prefer to do: things that will make us feel good, things that can ease our conscience so we can say, “Well, we’re at least giving God lip service.” But where are our hearts? That is what Jesus is looking at. He is not going to look just at the external actions; He is going to look at what is in the heart. If we are truly seeking His Will, if we are truly seeking to be conformed to Jesus Christ, then the Day of Judgment will be a very good one. If we are just going through external motions with our hearts not in it at all, without really trying to be transformed in the way that we live and in who we are, the Day of Judgment will not be a good one – even if we can say, “I went to daily Mass everyday for years and years and years.” He will look at us and say, “What good did it do you if you never let it in?” If we received Him every single day and never opened our heart to receive Him, what will that say about us?
So we need to be very careful about listening to what Our Lord is telling us, and we need to be faithful to what He has asked us, what He has commanded us, to make sure that we do not set aside the commandments of God for mere human tradition, for the things that we thought sounded better, for the things that we liked better, for the things that we thought were humanly possible where we thought the things He commanded us were not. These are the things we today need to be very, very careful of. We need to be faithful to Him so that we do not give Him mere lip service, but rather that we love Him with our whole heart and soul and strength as He Himself commanded, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.