“Honoring God with the Heart”, by Fr. Jesus

In today’s gospel, Jesus argues with the Pharisees and the scribes, inviting them to look beyond the letter of the law and to discover the spirit of the law. He explains to them, and to us too, that true religion does not consist in the mere performance of external rituals and external cleanliness; rather it is a matter of internal righteousness. Having clean hands and clean attire is fine; but it is by far more important to have a clean heart.

A newly-installed bishop who held a doctorate in Canon Law gave his first talk to the priests of his diocese. He told them: “From now on, this diocese will be ruled by Canon Law.” An old priest who was hard of hearing leaned towards a younger priest sitting beside him and asked, “What did he say?” Raising his voice for everybody to hear, the priest replied, “The bishop says that henceforth this diocese will be ruined by Canon Law.”

Rules and laws are good and helpful so long as they remain a means to achieve an end. Once they become ends in themselves, laws and rules can indeed ruin people. And that is precisely what happened to the Scribes and the Pharisees: They turned rules and traditions into absolutes–to be observed blindly, no matter what. For them, religion consisted in faithful and blind compliance with the letter of the law.

In today’s gospel, Jesus argues with the Pharisees and the scribes, inviting them to look beyond the letter of the law and to discover the spirit of the law. He explains to them, and to us too, that true religion does not consist in the mere performance of external rituals and external cleanliness; rather it is a matter of internal righteousness. Having clean hands and clean attire is fine; but it is by far more important to have a clean heart.

Jesus often berated the scribes and Pharisees because of their superficiality, that is, for remaining at the level of externals. He called them “whitened sepulchers,” clean on the outside but full of rottenness within. In today’s gospel, he applies to them the words of prophet Isaiah 29:13: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”

These words of prophet Isaiah invite us all to do some soul-searching. Are we not in many respects like the Scribes and Pharisees? Our religion is a Sunday morning affair. Once we are done with our Sunday “obligation,” we go back to do our own thing. There is a story about some hold-uppers preying on bus passengers. While they were divesting the passengers of their valuables, the bus passed in front of a church; when the hold-uppers saw it, they made the sign of the cross.

Our celebration of the sacraments, especially weddings, has become a mere social affair, a fashion show of sorts, rather than an encounter with the Lord. The Church is much to blame for allowing this to happen. We bless our new homes, of course, but then we turn them into a venue for holding mahjong sessions or drinking sprees. We bless our new car, but then we show no respect for traffic rules. We have endless superstitions, particularly those connected with the dead; for instance, when bringing their remains to the church for blessing, we argue about which should go first, feet or head; and yet, when they were alive, we never encouraged them to go to church.

We could go on and on listing the inconsistencies of our so-called “split-level Christianity” that cause some people to ask: How come our country, the only Catholic country in Asia, is so full of graft and corruption, violence, scandals, pornography, drug addiction, etc.? Obviously, because our religious practices remain at the level of externals and have no bearing on our life and values. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

May these words of Jesus help us realize that true religion consists, not in the performance of certain external rituals but, above all, in forging a personal relationship with the Lord—one that shapes and permeates our core values and our behavior, our personal as well as our professional undertakings.

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