22nd Sun [B] 2006

Fr. Charles Irvin

Deuteronomy4: 1-2, 8; James 1:17-18,22b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

If you would be a super-star athlete, an accomplished musician, or a poet, or a writer… or if you would be a renowned scientist, or at the top of your profession, or a business tycoon, you will have to live a disciplined life. You will have to observe a rigorous set of rules and not allow yourself to wallow in your own lazy and easy self-indulgences. Being the best in any field requires that you sacrifice many things, set aside your pleasures, and focus on what you value over and above a whole lot of other things.

Those of us who fail to follow the rules and who give ourselves license to do whatever makes us feel good end up being held as slaves to our own feelings. Our urges, feelings, and drives can hold us in unyielding bondage and slavery, a slavery to our own selves. In biblical language, that slavery is called hell. We end up living in hellish self-condemnation, damning ourselves mercilessly for what we could have done but did not, what we could have had, but now have not.

Above all else the ancient Israelites cherished and revered the law of God, the Torah. Orthodox Jews and other Jews of our day still hold that reverence. They realize that those who with humility and perseverance hold themselves to the laws and regulations handed down to them from the Torah will be given the strength and power to pass through life free of this world’s seductions, distractions, and diversions and so find their way to God.

The tyrannical Pharaoh of Egypt who held the Israelites in bondage is but an image of an even more merciless tyrant, namely our own Imperial Self. Following Moses, the great leader sent to them by God, the Jews were eventually able to find the freedom to belong to God and to belong to Him totally and without any external restrictions imposed upon them by the principalities and powers of this world. What was true for them back then is true for us today. Each one of us must come out of Egypt every day.

Thus, over the years, religious Jews rejoiced in the Law of God and by their observance of God’s Law witnessed to the saving God who cares for them and loves them so much that He gave them the Law. The problem is that, as with so many things, we easily slip into a mere external observance of the laws, rules and regulations that can guide us, liberate us, and that can free us to accomplish good and great things. What happens to an athlete who fails to keep his or her training discipline? Or a musician who fails to practice? What happens to an artist or poet who throws off the discipline of his or her craft? Greatness eludes them.

Laws are too often seen from the wrong perspective. They are seen as restricting us rather than liberating us. To be sure they restrict and control our urges, drives and feelings. To be sure they keep us from doing what we feel like doing when we feel like doing it. But that is not their chief purpose. The chief purpose of law is to free us to be focused, to keep us centered on what we can do in order to live wholesome and healthy lives, not just for ourselves but for the sake of caring for and building up others. To quote Lord Acton, a famous British philosopher: “Freedom is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

Good laws enshrine values. Good laws, rules and regulations keep us in the game. That should be obvious when you watch any football game, or basketball game, or any other sports event. Laws keep us disciplined, free us from the worst in ourselves and allow us to bring out the best in ourselves…to be winners.

Most importantly, laws and rules should shape our inner selves, shape our hearts. Mere external observance of them leads to terrible consequences. Simple compliance with laws, rules and regulations quickly leads to defiant compliance, and once defiance enters into us we are only a step away from breaking away from our discipline and becoming slaves to our own selves.

One of the chief problems Jesus faced was that many of the people around him, and particularly the religious leaders, were not truly religious. They were merely externally complying with their religious rules and laws; they were hypocrites, frauds and phonies. They saw only the external letter of the law and lost the vision of its inner spirit. Not only that but they were imposing their phoniness into the people whom God sent them to serve.

Thus we find Jesus admonishing the religious leaders around him:

Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition. ” He went on to say in another place: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to complete them.

After dealing harshly with the religious leaders he turned to the ordinary folks who were following him. The words he spoke to them are words he speaks to us here and now, today in this church. They are words we need to hear, living as we do in a culture surrounding us that has become horribly self indulgent, self-gratifying, and self-justifying… a culture that blames everyone else for what’s wrong. Aren’t you as sick of it as I am? Aren’t you sick of the constant blaming of everyone else while there is a total neglect of individuals taking responsibility for what’s in their own hearts, admitting what they have done that’s wrong? Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,

Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.

Many people these days are fond of saying that Jesus accepted everyone and tolerated everything they did. As we’ve just heard, that is simply not true. God’s laws are His gifts to us. They protect us from our selves, give us freedom, and lead us to what we dream we want to be, and what Jesus Christ died for us to have. God’s laws enshrine values, shape our hearts, overrule our tyrannical urges, and lead us into the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

May God’s love, peace, and freedom be yours in order that you may find happiness in this life and in the next.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”