In light of the news that has unfolded in our world about our church these past few weeks, the words of today’s gospel carry great impact.
The small group of Pharisees had evidently been sent from Jerusalem to see if the things they had been hearing about Jesus and his followers were true. We might say they were sent to catch Jesus and his disciples not following the rules! As he so often does, Jesus will turn things around and the Pharisees and each of us and our Church will be challenged. Jesus’ words will penetrate and confront us with a searching question: Are we following the teachings of Jesus?
As the passage goes on and we take the time to lift it up and see what is beneath the words, we find it will be bigger than what starts out as proper table etiquette.
These Pharisees were super vigilant in trying to catch Jesus and the disciples breaking with traditional practices. The traditions and customs had been so intertwined into the Jewish culture over many years, the Pharisees considered them to be as binding as the Law of Moses. Jesus is not so much against the practices as he is against making the practice equivalent to, and sometimes even greater than, the spirit of the Law.
This passage is asking us to look at the religious practices we engage in and observe regularly. Invitations to look at our lives to see if stringent external practices may have polluted our heart and soul, and we have made them more important than the spirit of God’s love and law.
The last verses made my blood run cold and my conscience go on high alert, especially in the midst of the shame and scandal rocking our church now.
He 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.”
We received a “Listen up!” notice from Jesus. This is a “let me make myself perfectly clear, so there is no misunderstanding” message from Jesus. The list Jesus gave the Pharisees of his day could be the same today: sex, abuse of power, control, money, greed. Perhaps, like many of you, I am so distressed by the state of our country and our world. The horrific war in Syria and atrocities in Yemen rage on. The number of shootings in our schools continues to escalate. The growing rejection to offer asylum that we witnessed as far too many children were separated from their families (and still not reunited). The growing rejection of migrants and immigrants seeking asylum frightens and angers me.
As painful as all of that chilling reality is, it has not cut my heart as deeply as the increasing exposition of the sexual scandal and abuse of ecclesial power in our church that has been kept hidden for decades. The past weeks have brought revelations of horrors inflicted on children and others by some in the Catholic clergy. The complicity of many in the church hierarchy in abusing their power by covering up the actions of the perpetrators but neglecting the survivors of the abuse shocks us. Such criminal and immoral acts have brought our church to its knees. Perhaps like you I am sickened by the reports that get worse each day. Perhaps like you, I feel emotions that range from intense anger, to the point of rage, to absolute powerlessness.
Many have expressed their intention to leave the church. Others have expressed a confusion and sorrow that comes when you lose trust and confidence in something or someone you deeply love. It seems critical for all of us to hold on to hope and to hold on to each other. Our trust in the church may be shattered or badly broken but don’t equate that with faith. Hold on to your faith in Christ Jesus. Jesus Christ is our center. Jesus Christ is our rock. Jesus Christ is the source of our hope.
For the past several weeks our gospels have focused on the most precious gift Jesus has given us — the gift of his Body and Blood. This is a gift he left us, not because we were worthy, but because he knew we would be hungry, over and over again. We are certainly very hungry right now. Hungry for forgiveness, hungry for understanding, hungry for compassion, hungry for wisdom, and hungry for hope and understanding, hungry to find the way to Jesus Christ. We are, in a very real sense, starving for the Bread of Life in these perilous times.
Indeed, our church has been brought to its knees in shame and disgrace because of the actions and behaviors of some. We must also be brought to our knees to offer deep prayer. It is a time, not to turn our back on the church, but a time to open our arms wider to embrace the deep teachings of Jesus. It is time to look on this horrific scandal with the eyes and heart of Jesus Christ. A scandal which will get worse before it gets better, because the problem is bigger than the scandal. The problem is systemic in scope. We will have to listen and heed the warning given in today’s gospel as Jesus reminded the group of Pharisees, and us, of Isaiah’s words:
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.”
These times will test our faith and erode our hope, unless we cling to Jesus Christ as we make the long and difficult journey back to the heart of God.
Today’s gospel calls us: as individuals, as a parish community, as a country and as a total Institutional Church to ask, “What is flowing out of our hearts and spoken from our lips, and lived in our behavior?”
Today, in this gospel passage, Jesus invites us and gives us a very stern warning to step back and look to see if we are only giving lip service to God while our heart remains very far from God. If I faithfully go to Church and yet continue to hate my neighbor, cheat others or refuse to forgive others then I must ask if going to Mass is just lip service to the heart of the law.
If my lips say, “I love my neighbor and care for the needy,” but I still ruthlessly accumulate power and material possessions at the expense of others, then I must ask myself if I am just giving lip service to the social teachings of my faith. I may choose to say extra prayers for peace and reconciliation and yet, ignore how I use my attitudes and words to hurt others. If I make it a practice to frequently receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but I am more diligent in doing or saying my penance than I am in changing my behavior toward self or others, am I being faithful? If I profess that we are temples of the Holy Spirit and yet turn my eyes from the escalating sickness of human trafficking, does that make my words meaningless? If I pray the Our Father and yet I demonstrate prejudice toward others who are not like me, forgetting that we are brother and sister to all, is the prayer mere lip service?
If as a Church we fail to do all that we can to protect our children and fail to faithfully exercise the authority entrusted to us in Jesus’ name, should we not be held accountable?
If we look closely at this passage from Mark, we discover that there is a little bit of Pharisee in each of us. The sexual scandal and gross misuse of ecclesial power has shown us that there is a lot of Pharisee in our Institutional Church. It is time to pay close attention to Jesus’ instruction and “Listen up!” It is time to pay very close attention to what comes from our heart and what is shown in our actions and heard in our words. It is time to depollute, not only as individuals, but as an Institutional Church, our attitudes, our behaviors, our inner and outer prejudices and judgements. Let there be no mistake, the words of Jesus have made it very clear today. We are responsible and must be held accountable. No one is above or exempt from the words of Jesus given to us in today’s gospel.
Sister Teresa Tuite, OP