Mass of Twenty Second Sunday of the Year
Sunday, 30 August 2015
St. Macartan’s Cathedral, 7.00pm
My dear friends,
There was an abbot once who was the proud owner of a pet cat which had strayed one day into the monastery, no one knew from where. Whenever the abbot went to pray, especially if it was a long liturgical service, he would gently tether the cat in the entrance to the chapel so that it could not run away. He had done this for many years. When eventually he died his former companions felt they must continue the custom. As soon as they gathered for worship one of their number would ensure that the cat was present in the doorway. But, of course, eventually all the monks who had known the old abbot died. And finally the cat – who had lived to a great age for a cat – died too. It was decided that the ancient custom must be maintained. So another cat was acquired and duly posted at the chapel door at the start of every service.
The years went by and one day a new recruit, quite a young man, joined the monastery. He was intrigued by the cat and asked one of the monks for an explanation. “Strange you should ask,” he replied “but do you know, I have no idea. It’s just that this is the way we have always done things here.”
Customs, traditional ways of doing things are part and parcel of every society, including every religious community. They can be extremely useful. Equally they can become extremely pointless. They can even become dangerous, especially if they are clung to blindly, without any thought of what lies behind them, or of their probable consequences or the possibility that there might be a more helpful way of doing things.
In today’s first reading Moses commands the people to follow their God-given laws. In the Gospel reading the Pharisees and scribes complain to Jesus that his followers are eating with unwashed hands and so are not complying with the law. They mean that the disciples are ignoring some of the prescriptions that the scribes and Pharisees have added to the law over the centuries. These regulations were not concerned with health and safety but with ritual purity: the washing of everyday things and of human limbs rendered them ritually clean, uncontaminated, fit, the Pharisees thought, for the service of God.
Jesus opposes this idea very firmly. He does not suggest that ritual cleaning is of no value but he affirms very strongly that other things are of much more importance. He uses some harsh words to describe the Pharisees – actors, showmen, hypocrites who offer lip-service to the Lord while their hearts are far from him. He says their service is worthless. If they want to find what really makes people “unclean” then they should look at not what goes into the body but what comes from the human heart. This is the source of evil intentions and all kinds of nastiness.
Today’s readings challenge us to examine our own attitudes and practices. We can behave like the Pharisees refusing to accept changes in what we are used to. We can be arrogant and stubborn and lacking in humility in clinging to the belief that only our own way of doing things is acceptable and really is the only way.
If the heart is the source of evil it must also be the source of good things. Jesus calls for hearts that are gentle and humble. Nelson Mandela, the first president of democratic South Africa, was imprisoned for more than twenty years for his opposition to the racist government. Despite the horror of those years, both for himself and for black South Africans living under the brutal apartheid system, Mandela, as president, did not preach hatred and revenge. In his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ Mandela recounts how he was able to survive prison by finding the spark of humanity in the guards.
“I always knew”, he says, “that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of our guards, perhaps just for a very brief moment but it was enough for me to keep going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
As Jesus makes clear in today’s Gospel, the kind of human beings we are begins in the values of the heart, the place where God dwells within us; but the evil we are capable of, the hurt we inflict on others, the degrading of the world that God created also begins within, as well, when God is displaced by anger, hatred, selfishness and greed. May God open our spirits and consciences to listen to the voice of God speaking in that sacred space within every heart calling us to understanding rather than judgment, forgiveness rather than vengeance, respect instead of ridicule, reconciliation rather than division. Why should we accept bling when God offers us the real deal! It all depends on what we are willing to spend (the sacrifices we are willing to make).
Liam S. MacDaid
29 August 2015