22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - From the Heart

We tend to think of “spirituality” as a practice or a pursuit reserved for a very few elitist of souls.  We think of the lucky ones who have the extra time (and money) to pray more, meditate daily, go to special retreats, or read books on the subject.  Most of us would claim our lives are far too busy at this time for “spiritual pursuits.”  We try to get to church and say a few extra prayers while we shave or do our hair.  But as far as “developing our spiritual lives,” that will have to wait untl we get more time;  maybe after the kids leave the house, or when we retire.

christphariseesAll this categorizing of the notions of spirituality is unfortunate.  We can’t reserve spirituality to just some special folks who are able to read the latest books or take time to go to a retreat center.   We all have a spiritual life. The question we ask today, in the light of the scriptural readings, concerns the health of our spiritual life.  Our lives are directed or misdirected by the condition of our spirit.  Our spiritual life either holds us together or is the cause of chaos and misdirection. 

A healthy spirit can make us energetic and vibrant people with a hopeful outlook and a sense of life’s possibilities for the good.  It can energize us to face the most intractable of social ills and not be discouraged.  It can prevent us from giving up when we don’t get immediate results.   A neglected spirit causes disintegration, sours how we look at our lives, turns us cynical, and leaves us with a narrowness of vision that isolates us from others. 

The same issue comes up as Jesus confronts the religious leaders who have expressed and based their spirituality on externals.  They have taken the revered law of God, about which Moses speaks in the first reading and placed more emphasis on external observances.  They are concerned with what is “clean and unclean” and they accuse Jesus and his disciples of ignoring the traditions of their ancestors.  Jesus confronted them and, in referring to Isaiah, he highlights what prophets have always attacked, the corrupting of religious practices and the oppression of the poor through burdensome religious rules. 

Jesus is reminding us that ritual is meaningless if it does not flow from an upright heart.  In the biblical view, the heart is the center of our life. The heart is a figure for the spiritual life of a person.  Here can be found a person’s deepest truths, most tightly guarded secrets.  It is the heart that reveals our true identity. Because the heart is so profoundly identified with the person, so much the seat of one’s identity, it is only God who can change a person’s heart. 

The grace of our gospel today is to awaken our hearts from their drowsiness and distractions and to stir us to examine the sincerity of our religious observances.  Do our lives and our choices reflect the same sensitivity to the poor and disenfranchised as did Jesus’?  Or, are we using “religion” as insulation from the world around us?

When the church is committed only to old doctrines along with old codes of conduct that seek the approval associated with honored traditions, the whole of society is shortchanged.  The soul of the community shrivels. Worship fades.

Christ is the source of our hearts’ renewal. He puts priority on human relationships and has shown them to be sacred. The Gospel challenges us to look to our heart where our true identity lies. We need to develop our consciences according to the spirit of Jesus; to find ways to name the evils that reside in our heart under the guise of self-interest, family values, patriotism, and, according to today's gospel, religious practices.

We cannot let ourselves get in the way of Christ. The Letter of James guides us in determining if our religion is true and our hearts are clean.  The standard is how we treat the needy. "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world." That's the kind of heart we wish to bring before God, hearts longing to be made pure by the Word we have heard and the heart-renewing food of the Bread of Llife.