Faith, morals and practical precepts

Homily for the twenty-second Sunday of Year B. Deut 4:1-2.6-8; Ps 14; James 1:17-18.21-22.27; Mk 7:1-8.14-15.21-23.

Today's Gospel describes a dispute between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees on the question of how faith and morality are connected. In today's brief homily, I would like to outline some of the lessons of this dispute.

The first and most obvious lesson is that faith and morals are connected. Both Jesus and his opponents agree on this point at least, that certain kinds of behaviour are incompatible with a living faith in the true God. Such a conclusion is highly significant in itself: many religions in human history have regarded their gods principally as a source of power or benefit rather than a basis for ordering one's life even according to the natural law. In myths and legends, the pagan gods of Greece or Rome often behaved like a group of adolescent teenagers, and the gods of many other civilizations, such as Carthage, were often much darker figures, demanding diabolical sacrifices. Today's 'New Age' revival of paganism also blurs the notions of good and evil, and tends to avoid such categories altogether. By contrast, when today's Responsorial Psalm asks, "Lord, who shall dwell on your holy mountain?" the answer is "He who walks without fault; he who acts with justice, who does not wrong to his brother" and so on. Similarly, in today's First Reading, Moses says to the people, "Now, Israel, take notice of the laws and customs that I teach you today, and observe them, that you may have life and dwell in the land that the Lord the God of your fathers in giving you." In other words, to dwell with the holy God, we need ourselves to be holy, avoiding sin or being cleansed when we have sinned.

Now it is important to anticipate an objection. To say that we need to be holy in order to dwell with God does not mean that we earn salvation by our good works - a popular but erroneous belief about what the Catholic Church teaches. On the contrary, we become holy by becoming adopted children of God, by the grace of Baptism. This divine adoption, as St James says in the Second Reading, is by God's own choice; it is not a gift that we can earn for ourselves. Nevertheless, morality still matters for our salvation, because although we cannot merit this divine life for ourselves, we can still kill the divine life of our souls and be made 'unclean' by serious sin. To use a natural analogy, none of us chose to be conceived or born, but we could, by certain actions, put ourselves to death. Similarly, while we cannot give ourselves the grace of Baptism, if we commit serious sin after Baptism, we kill the divine life of our souls, a deprivation that can, ordinarily, only be restored by the sacrament of Confession. So the crucial question is that of the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees in today's Gospel: what, exactly, makes us unclean and incapable of dwelling with God?

Well, those who accept that friendship with God involves avoiding whatever makes us unclean face a potential confusion. There are many kinds of good actions that are worthwhile without being moral absolutes. To take the example in today's Gospel, washing one's hands before eating is generally a good practice, but such washing is not essential and may not even be possible in certain circumstances. By contrast, certain kinds of actions are always good and certain kinds of actions are always evil. Many people, however, such as the Pharisees in today's Gospel, often confuse these two categories. They turn practical precepts, like washing one's hands, into moral absolutes while turning moral absolutes into practical precepts. To clarify that there are, indeed, moral absolutes, Jesus then gives a list of examples of actions and vices that are always evil: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride and folly. While all of these actions and vices are also listed as evil in the Old Testament, Jesus perhaps draws special attention to them because they are especially destructive of the relationship with God given to us by Baptism. Fornication, for example, is a sin against the body, the body that should be holy as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Slander, to take another example, is a sin against another human being who is also, potentially or actually, a child of God. Pride is, in essence, a failure to recognize one's need of God or the nature of the gifts given to us by God, leading to the worship of oneself rather than the worship of the true God. While we are still alive, all of these sins can, of course, be forgiven - the Church is a hospital for sinners - but it is essential that we turn to God while there is still time to do so. So may God give us a deeper awareness of the importance of morality for our salvation. May he also give us a greater consciousness of those things that cut us off from God, may we turn back to God while we have time to do so, and may we come safely, one day, to the Kingdom of Heaven.

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