Sunday Sermon for September 2, 2018, the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings: Deut: 4:1-2, 6-8; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Last week we were presented with the challenge Joshua placed before the people of Israel 3500 years ago: choose today whom you will serve.  Each of us has a free will to make the choice of whom we will serve.  I think it is important to recognize that there is not an option to serve no one.  Each of us has to serve someone.

When the people of Israel told Joshua they would serve the Lord, Joshua emphasized that serving the Lord was not easy.  It was certainly not a matter of lip service and merely believing in God; rather, it is a matter of loving Him and serving Him with one’s whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

In today’s readings, what it means to serve the Lord is spelled out for us.  In the first reading Moses speaks to the people about the statutes and decrees of the Lord that they needed to observe.  Knowing human nature well, Moses tells the people they are not to add to nor subtract from what God commanded.

In the Gospel we hear our Lord chastising the Pharisees and the Scribes because they made mere human precepts into laws.  They required the people to follow practices God had not commanded as the Law; at the same time, they conveniently set aside commands of the Law they did not like.  Keep in mind, the things the Pharisees required were all good and reasonable things, but they were not God’s Law.

St. James, in the second reading, tells us that all good giving and every perfect gift comes from above, from God.  The obvious implication is that anything not good or perfect must come from either the devil or human creatures.  Most specifically, St. James calls us all to welcome the word that has been planted in us and is able to save our soul.  Beyond this, he tells us that we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only.  If we only give lip service and do not practice what God has revealed, St. James says we delude ourselves.

At one point, Jesus challenges His hearers to search the Scriptures in which they believed they had salvation.  In other words, salvation does not come through the written Word of God alone; instead, salvation comes through the Word made flesh, the Person of Jesus Christ.  So, we are indeed to read the Scriptures and allow God’s Word into our hearts and minds, but no one will be saved through the Bible alone.

Anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus Christ.  A proper reading of the Scriptures makes clear that Jesus is the Savior and there is no other Name given to us by which we will be saved.  Therefore, Jesus is the Word of God we must welcome into our hearts.  The written word can touch us deeply and we can come back to it time and again because it speaks to our hearts.  However, we cannot truly love the written word.

The written word can instruct us, challenge us, console us, encourage us, and so on.  Allowing the word into our hearts can help us to know Who Jesus is, but allowing Jesus into our hearts requires love.  We can read the words He spoke and we can be moved, but we are called to love the Person.  This is what it really means to serve the Lord.

To love Him is to serve Him and vice versa.  This is why, in the Gospel reading our Lord teaches us that what defiles us comes from within our hearts: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly.  These are all violations of love; they cannot come from above because they gravitate against our dignity and how we are to serve God and neighbor.

If we give into these things, we have set aside the Law of God and substituted it with something of our own making.  In other words, we have fallen under the same condemnation as the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel.  So, once again, the question has to be put to us: whom will we serve?

If you see in yourself some of the things mentioned by our Lord that defile us, do not despair.  If we are repentant and do not want to do these things, even though we fall through human weakness, we can be confident in the mercy of God.  If we are willfully giving into these kinds of things with no remorse, we are choosing not to serve the Lord.  What does the choice to serve the Lord entail?  To serve God is very simple (although our selfishness can make it difficult) and requires only one thing: do everything out of love.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.

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