Homily: 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
For many years I’ve had a desire to learn how to play the piano. Over the years, I’ve made multiple attempts to learn. Each time I’d sit down with a lot of hope that this will be the time that I begin to become proficient. Now, anyone who’s tried to learn how to play an instrument knows that it’s a lot of work! You have to learn how to read sheet music, first and foremost; and then you have to learn what keys correspond to the notes on the page and how to move your hands and fingers in the proper ways in order to strike those keys in sequence and thus play the song. At first, it can be very frustrating as it seems like all of this work is very limiting. I mean, I just want to play a few songs! Why does it have to be so complicated? Perhaps needless to say, but every attempt that I’ve made to learn how to play the piano has ended in frustration and abandonment, not proficiency and success.
In our first reading today from the book of Deuteronomy Moses is preparing to instruct the Israelites in the Law that he received from God on Mount Sinai. The Israelites are getting ready to enter into the Promised Land, but Moses won’t be going with them. Thus, he’s going to remind them of the Law that God had revealed to him so that they’ll be prepared to follow it when they cross over into the Promised Land. First, however, he gives them the “why” behind the “what”. Basically he says, “Follow these statutes and decrees of the Lord and you will live well in the land.” In other words, he’s prefacing his recounting of the Law by saying that these are your guidelines to living a long and abundant life in the Land that God is promising to you. “You’ll see,” he says, “that following these statutes and decrees of the Lord will make your lives so rich that other nations will be jealous!”
Initially, of course, the Israelites were on-board. Who wouldn’t want to live an abundant life after so many years of wandering in the desert? History has shown, however, that, once they settled in the land, following the statutes and decrees of the Lord was easier said than done. Faced with the reality of living the Law, the Israelites more often than not abandoned it out of frustration. At times, God would send them a prophet to call them back to right living according to his Law (and, thus, the abundant life he promised them), but the Israelites continued to abandon it. The ultimate realization of this is when God allowed them to be conquered by the Assyrians and exiled into Babylon: the promise of a long life in the land now completely unfulfilled.
When God relented of his punishment and allowed them to return to the Land, there rose up a cult of persons dedicated to ensuring that the people observed the law to the letter. In Jesus’ time, there were multiple groups of these persons: the scribes, who were Scripture scholars, and the Pharisees, who were scholars in the Law, specifically. For these groups, the Law was an end in itself and therefore it must be followed to the letter for fear of offending God again. The idea that the Law was a means for achieving the abundant life was lost on them.
When we think about learning to play the piano, however, we see that all of those lessons in learning how to read sheet music and how to move your hands and fingers to play the notes in sequence are all intended to ensure that the notes are played harmoniously. For the astute learner, these lessons begin to sink in a little deeper and he or she begins to learn what sounds go together (for example, the chords) and how to intermingle those sounds to make new sounds. Thus, having become proficient, the astute learner comes to know how to improvise in the middle of a song; and how to do so in such a way that it seems to fit perfectly with the notes on the page. True experts—the virtuoso pianists—can improvise whole songs, so deeply have they assimilated the laws governing the extraction of music from the piano. Thus, they are truly free to play as their heart moves them: because their heart has learned to desire only the most beautiful sounds that the piano can provide.
As I mentioned, Moses presented the Law as a “guidebook” for living the abundant life that God wanted for his chosen people. This is why he said to them, “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live…” God did not give this Law to his people in order to restrict them; but rather to focus them towards the ways of living that would truly fulfill them, both as individuals and as a people. Over the centuries, as I mentioned, this notion was lost as the people abandoned God’s lessons for living the abundant life. The Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ times strove to restore God’s Law, but only as an end itself: that is, a protection against the wrath of God.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is reminding them that the Law was meant to free us, not restrict us: much in the same way as the laws governing the playing of a piano are meant to free the musician to do more, not less with it. Therefore Jesus instructs them that observance of the Law for the sole purpose of observance is empty. This, he implies, is no better than no observance at all: for both are breeding grounds for sin. Observance as training for right living sanctifies, however, because through it we purge those things from within us that cause us to sin (things like those Jesus listed for us): “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly. All these come from within,” Jesus says, “and they defile.”
And so, my brothers and sisters, we come back to a question that perhaps we need to ask ourselves periodically: “Why do we have the Law?” The answer is simple: “In order to train ourselves to be virtuosos in the art of human living: that is, to give us true freedom by teaching our hearts to desire that which truly satisfies it.” And what truly satisfies it? The Bread of Life, of course! Jesus, the living bread come down from heaven, is the only thing that can satisfy our hearts in this world.
Our hearts, however, are attuned to desiring worldly bread and so this work of training our hearts to desire only that which truly satisfies it is hard work: work that can leave us frustrated so that we want to abandon it. Thus God’s grace comes to us through the Sacraments and prayer. In the Sacraments, we receive specific grace from God to strengthen us in this work; and in our prayer, God gives us grace to refresh us and to renew our hope daily. For those of us who know this grace, we can only be grateful. Thus we come here each week to give God thanks even as we receive more grace from him. For those of us who don’t know this grace, however, the law seems only to be an end in itself or as a means for appeasing a wrathful God. These don’t have thankfulness in their hearts and often their religious observance is empty.
Nevertheless, the truth revealed to us by God through the Sacred Scriptures reminds us that if God has given us a law, it is so that we can live the abundant life for which he made us. And if he has given us freedom, it wasn’t so that we could do whatever we want; rather it was so that we would have the right to choose to do what we ought. Let us, therefore, set our hearts on achieving the abundant life that the Lord desires for us: a life lived in accordance with his Law after the model of Jesus, the Bread of Life, whom we now turn to meet at this altar.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 29th & 30th, 2015