RELIGION IS ABOUT LOVE, NOT LAW ENFORCEMENT

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
August 30, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Deuteronomy 4:1-2:6-8 Psalm 15:2-5
James 1:17-18;21b-22;27 Mark 7:1-8;14-15;21-23
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
       What is religion? Is it a set of rules? Is it ritual? Is it what’s in a particular book or books? The short answer is, all of the foregoing. Whether one is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, or even if one is a pagan pantheist, rules and principles of one’s belief system establish an ideal path for existence, marked by rituals, and anchored to sacred texts. Those are the markers that catch my attention when I encounter those whose traditions differ from mine. Religion allows us to reflect on what we think, how we feel, and what we do, or not do. The content of that reflective process determines our response to God and our fellow humans, even if one does not acknowledge God’s existence. Even if you don’t go to church, or believe in God, you have a religion. You have principles, you have rituals, and you have texts that are sacred to you. Your soul has a structure than organizes your life.
       As you will recall from reading the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, God bestowed on the Jewish people hundreds of laws, and used their bellicose neighbors as punitive oppressors when the people of Israel displeased God.  God eventually saw that hundreds of detailed regulations, enforced by the threat of divine punishment, failed to deter bad behavior, so God tried something new: God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, who taught a new program. Part of that new program was to look at what’s in people’s hearts, rather than their obedience to laws. Jeremiah prophesized that God would substitute laws written on people’s hearts, for those written on stone tablets.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus responded to criticism from the Pharisees directed at his disciples for not following the human-made Jewish regulations for hand and dish washing prior to eating, by calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who emphasized going through the motions of following regulations, rather than following God’s commandments. Which commandment did they not follow? The one that is above all others, loving God with one’s heart, mind and soul, which by implication, also means loving one another, as we are all created in God’s image.
Since about the 1960’s, organized religion has been on the downswing. Church attendance is down.  People have walked away from congregations of all denominations in great numbers.  Today’s scripture lessons, however, offer at least a small insight into why that is happening, by calling attention to the hypocrisy that characterizes so many religious people and their institutions.  The Roman Church preaches a detailed code of sexual purity by insisting the only proper sex is that within marriage, without birth control, yet legions of its clergy have been involved in sexual abuse of children, and/or the sexual exploitation of female adults working for the church or attending its services. And the Protestant pastors who rail against same sex relationships are the same Protestant pastors making headlines with same sex partners. It is this kind of duplicitous behavior that’s turned people away from church.
The other thing that turns people off, and pushes them away from church, are all the human-made rules churches have.  Throughout history, religions seem to love to make rules. The  Hebrew Bible has six hundred and thirteen commandments. The Roman Catholic Church has one thousand seven hundred fifty two canons in its Code of Canon Law.  The Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States each have hundreds of canons, as do the Methodists and the Lutherans. Even our own mother church, the Catholic Church of America, has a set of canons, but comparatively speaking, not that many, and more important, we have a merciful bishop, who applies those few rules that we do have with great compassion.
As all of you know, I am an attorney by trade, about to retire from law practice tomorrow, and have dealt with law for almost forty-one years in the legal system as claims adjuster, private investigator, law clerk and attorney.  One thing the legal system is not, is compassionate.  That’s seen as weakness or favoritism.  My biggest pet peeve, both in the secular realm, and in the church, is law for law’s sake, where people want rules to be followed, regardless of circumstances. A good example is speed limits, which supposedly set an absolute limit on how fast you can drive in a particular area. A better approach is the one used in Montana years ago, where there were no speed limits on rural highways. Instead, the law required one to drive at a speed that was “Reasonable and Prudent.” That makes sense to me, but unfortunately the Courts think that runs afoul of Due Process, since such a law fails to clearly set out what is prohibited, that is, how fast is too fast.  My second biggest pet peeve is laws that have been imposed from above on people below, by people above them, who don’t know the reality on the ground. In the workers compensation system, where I served as an adjuster and attorney for many years, the law prescribes through utilization guidelines what kind of medical care injured workers should get, instead of leaving it strictly up to the physician treating the patient. The result has been a great deal of human suffering about which I was powerless as an attorney to change.
       Unfortunately, those two problems with rules and laws infect the church as well as the secular world.  Take for example, the rules of the Roman Church about divorce and remarriage.  They look at the beginning of the marriage – whether or not it was valid – instead of why it failed, in deciding who can, or cannot, be married in the church after divorce. In California, one can obtain a divorce on demand, for any reason on no reason, just like an employee without a contract can be fired from a job for any reason or no reason.  Common sense would tell you that someone who is the victim of spousal abandonment should be able to get married again with no problem, but that’s not the way Rome sees it. Rome’s divorce rules are a great example of the church honoring the law with its lips, but not with its heart, imposing its own laws, where God’s law is different. In this instance, God’s law is to love, honor, cherish and be faithful to your spouse. Not allowing remarriage to someone who tried to do that in the face of rejection by one’s partner, not only makes no sense, but countermands the very essence of what God is: a parent who loves us unconditionally. The love of God, not obedience to rules, is the true shining light in the message of Jesus.  The church, to be true to itself in what it believes, must do that, to avoid the hypocrisy demonstrated by the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading, and to present itself to the world as an institution that is a doer as well as hearer of God’s word. The doing is what’s really important. You’ll probably recall the saying of Saint Francis of Assisi, “preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Yes, I love to sing the Gospel, but as I have said many times from the pulpit and elsewhere, the Gospel is primarily something we do.  It is something we live out, in the way we interact with the world.
Today’s Epistle talks about being doers of God’s will, and not hearers only, but we really have to get beyond the doing and examine what is deep inside us.  Just as James tells us to be doers of the word and not hearers only, one’s actions must be the product of what’s in one’s heart. What you do, and what you say, shows the world what’s inside you, the essence of your internal character. Behavior like substance abuse, stealing, lying, angry words, assaulting people, and exploiting others, all comes from within you. We, as a society, depend on laws and law enforcement to protect us from people who do bad things.  But the capabilities of the legal system to accomplish that are limited, because law acts on the behavior only, not the causes of the behavior. The legal system doesn’t deal with what’s within us, only the outward manifestations of what goes on inside of us.
The ministry and message of Jesus, however, acts on people differently than the legal system does. What Jesus did and said is directed to what’s within us. Unfortunately, people are scared to receive Jesus within themselves, because changing what’s inside of them may change accustomed behavior patterns which, though negative, have facilitated survival and produced emotional satisfaction. Jesus faces the same challenges in penetrating and changing people today, as He did in dealing with the Pharisees.
Jesus came to speak to what’s inside of us, to bring out the good within us, the part that loves God, the part that loves our fellow humans. The many laws of the various denominations obscure the reality that Jesus was not about law; He was about love. The commandments He gave us exhorted us to love. Those commandments are few but powerful: love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Everything Jesus taught is directly related to those two simple principles. Go through the Sermon on the Mount, go through all the parables, and all the discourses, and you will recognize some variation of either or both of those two commandments. Jesus came from a tradition which >exalted law. Not only did the ancient Jews have six hundred thirteen laws in the first five books of the Bible, but they glorified obedience to the law as the key to salvation. Read Psalm one nineteen, the longest of all the Psalms. It is an anthology praising law going on for one hundred seventy six verses. It has eight concepts of law within it: way, law, decrees, precepts, statutes, commands, ordinances, and words.  Jesus,however, saw things from different perspective. In the parable of the rich young ruler, Jesus listened attentively to a young man who boasted that he kept all the commandments, and asked what more must he do to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus responded that he had to give up all his wealth and follow Jesus. The young man walked away, shocked that Jesus would tell him that there was more to life than obeying laws and accumulating wealth. The connection some people form between law and wealth is still with us.  The people who control the wealth in this country are, for the most part, law and order types, and use the law to oppress the poor. Look at Ferguson, Missouri, where the police and the court system cooperate to run a money-making enterprise.There, cops write tickets for trivial offenses, like loitering or victimless traffic violations, to people who can’t afford to pay, and who are then thrown in jail for not paying. Again, we encounter the obey-the-law syndrome, and there, it’s used to make money. The law-for-law’s-sake-or-else mentality causes human suffering, but the people in charge don’t care. And even more egregious is the incident in New York City, where four police officers arrested a man for selling untaxed cigarettes, and put him in a choke hold that killed him when he refused to cooperate. Again, law for law’s sake, this time with tragic results. By contrast, the essence of Jesus is substituting love and common sense in place of laws, by changing hearts and minds. Jesus does this by altering what’s inside of us, to improve what comes out of us, so that we become doers of the word, and not hearers only. Jesus will continue to do this for us today, if we only allow Jesus into our lives. The Bread and Wine at the Eucharist are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  In the same way, Jesus can change what’s inside you. AMEN.

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