Give evidence of your wisdom
On Commencement Day, June 10, 1982, Harvard University conferred honorary degrees on twelve men and women. One of them was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her care of “the poorest of the poor.” The little nun was also chosen to give the Harvard Class Day address. It is reported that she was the third choice of the senior class. They had first invited actor Alan Alda, who had declined; and then Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had also declined.
To use an old expression, the seniors had “shot at the goose and hit the gander.” Mother Teresa, whose English is slightly accented but excellent, “spoke with an almost mesmerizing conviction.” As usual she was direct, positive and Christian in her remarks. She told the members of the large graduating class that virginity is “the most beautiful thing a young man and a young woman can give each other.” Make a resolution,” she said, “that on your wedding day you can give each other something beautiful.” “But,” she added, if a mistake has been made, have the courage to accept the child. Do not destroy it. That sin is murder.”
Harvard Magazine commented, “What she said struck many listeners as anomalous in Harvard Yard on Class Day.” That is putting it mildly. But it was a tribute to this great university’s intellectual honesty that Mother Teresa “received a long, standing ovation from the unusually large crowd come to hear a saintly woman.” The same thing happened at commencement when she was praised for setting “an example of compassionate generosity that awakens the conscience of the world.” The commencement audience gave her another standing ovation.
Why should sophisticated audiences like these have hailed a nun who brought them back to basic principles? Simply because they saw she was no sham. By carefully living up to the law of God, she had “given evidence of her wisdom and intelligence to the nations.” (Deuteronomy, 4:4. Today’s first reading.)
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q387: Is St. James overly concerned that people can deceive themselves through mere ritual observance?
One of those “universal” things that everyone in the world does, at one time or another, is to go “window shopping.” We just want to “browse” without buying anything. Maybe there is a little bit of envy in the deep recesses of our mind, as we look at the things we can’t afford. Maybe there is also a little bit of fantasy, as we picture ourselves in that latest designer outfit or trendy set of sports clothes. Or maybe we are just curious to see what the manufacturers are doing to appeal to our consumer lust for “more” of something we don’t need. Or, maybe we are the reluctant spouse or child, forced to tag along as our wife or mother indulges her own fantasies.
Now, let’s move that symbolism to the area of religion. Consider your own expression of faith on Sundays. Are you a “window shopper,” just tagging along or showing up because someone says you “have to”? Or, perhaps you are attending Sunday worship services just hoping to be entertained by a lively homily? Is it possible that you wore that outfit just to show off the latest fashions and get lots of attention? After Mass is over, is the gospel message and homily suggestion forgotten? (Can you even dimly remember what the preacher recommended last Sunday?)
St. James is urging us today in the second reading (James 1:17-27) to avoid the danger of being simply a “Christian window shopper.” God’s word is not entertainment; it is both call and invitation to a special way of life – God’s way. We are called to be “doers” of the word, not just window shoppers who won’t take action on what they see and hear.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! If our hearts are open, God’s word will cause us to take action out of love, not from ritual demands (CCC #1972). Our only “law” is to love as Christ loved us – this is the “new” law of the Holy Spirit (CCC #782). Letting God’s word take root and grow through action is how we avoid the self-deception that concerns St. James.
Q543: So what is wrong with a good hand washing before meals? It makes sense; why would Jesus object to the practice (Mark 7:1-23)?
I’m sure that everyone has been in a room or an elevator with a group of people, and one person is reeking overwhelmingly from old-fashioned B.O. Sometimes it can be downright awful or disgusting, and challenge your ability to keep an expressionless face. As soon as you can do so without embarrassing the other person, you find an excuse to move to another location. It isn’t easy to find a way to tell a friend (or even a stranger) that they really stink, or that they need to try a new deodorant. Over the years, most people have developed the defensive habit of hiding such potential embarrassments, by disguising their problem through the use of a deodorant once or twice a day.
The Israelites had also developed a defensive habit or custom, one not required by the written Torah or Mosaic law. The cultic priests received their portion of food from the sacrificial offerings at the Temple. So to avoid offending God and to stay ritually pure, these priests had a defensive water ritual of cleansing the hands and forearms, to avoid any possibility of appearing awful or disgusting before the presence of God in the Temple. Soon the people simply copied what the priests were doing, urged on by oral teachings that in due course became part of the human tradition perpetuated by the scribes and Pharisees.
The problem Jesus confronted arose because this human tradition had come to be viewed as a mandate from God, which was not true. No longer was the cleansing or washing action related to its original purpose as a desire to avoid being insensitive to God’s presence. It had become just a rigid practice to follow. Jesus refused to follow a set of rules that were aimed a judging others and which became a source of class division (i.e., clean rich vs. unclean poor).
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The novel interpretation by Jesus of some of the details of the oral law regarding purity were seen as religious crimes by those rigidly adhering to human rather than divine traditions (CCC #574). Jesus disavowed such human traditions by his own divine authority (CCC #581).
Be Doers of the Word
The first reading today puts great stress on keeping God’s commandments. It tells us to add nothing to them. In the centuries after Moses people developed many traditional interpretations and ways of understanding the commandments. Sometimes their concern for keeping these human traditions and interpretations distracted them from more important and essential aspects of God’s commands. In today’s Gospel Jesus is angry at this nitpicking over interpretations and rigid observances. He tells them to focus on more substantial matters. He makes his point later in Mark’s Gospel by quoting from other Old Testament passages: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul. and your neighbor as your self.” St. James reminds us: “Be doers of the word. Act on this word. If all you do is listen…you are deceiving yourself.” He tells us that the way to observe God’s command is “Looking after widows and orphans…” These were the biblical images of the defenseless and needy whom we are to love as ourselves.
Lord you have given us the task of building your creation into a world of love and justice. May your words inspire all our actions and sustain them to the end, so that all our prayer and work may begin in you and be completed through your help.