September 2 22nd Sunday of the Year (B)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8).

In the Book of Deuteronomy this reading comes at the end of the first (Deuteronomy chapters 1-4) of three addresses Moses makes to the people before they are to enter the Promised Land after the desert wanderings. They will be then among pagan peoples and must be well prepared to know their own privilege as specially chosen by God, having come into contact with him, and having received a law, a way of life from him. They would need cohesion to avoid assimilation by pagan society. They would have this sense of being a separate people, with a mission to others of the value of belief in the one True God, the God of Israel, by their firm belief and by behaviour in keeping with the laws governing their life. There is a divine wisdom in these laws and their way of life, a wisdom that can impress outsiders. These laws and Israel’s way of life were a combination of divine commandments valid for all times (for instance what we call the Ten Commandments) and other laws and customs of various origin making for cohesion, and as ‘markers” setting the Jewish people off from other nations. All these laws and customs were to be observed for the sake of social cohesion. They served Israel well over the centuries, and even in the pagan world of New Testament times, and before, the Jewish synagogue and communities were respected for the strict monotheism and general moral behaviour. There was a temptation that some sections of Judaism (for instance the Pharisees) would take the principle of adding nothing to the Law of Moses too far, and develop new laws for what they believed meant greater respect of the Law of Moses. Many of the laws in earlier Judaism which were designed as markers of national and religious identity, and intended as aids for national cohesion, came into conflict with Paul and nascent Christianity, when all barriers between Jew and non-Jew (pagan) had to be broken down.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 14 [15]). Lord, who shall dwell on your holy mountain? Those who walk without fault.

Second Reading (James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27).

During the last seven Sundays the second readings gave us beautiful passages from the Epistle to the Ephesians. Today we begin the first of five Sunday second readings from another letter, the Letter of James. It is the first of seven New Testament letters known as the Catholic Epistles, catholic that is in that they are supposed to be addressed to the universal (catholic) church rather than to individual churches, or individuals, as Paul’s letters were. The Letter of James is catholic in that sense. It opens simply by an indication of the name of the writer and the recipients: “James, a servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”. Who the James in question is, is not clear. Some believe he was James, brother of the Lord, head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, martyred in 62 A.D. The letter is written in excellent Greek and is related to later Christian writings, so that many scholars today believe it was written in the later first century. The recipients intended by “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion” are probably Jewish Christians outside of Palestine (the land of Israel) throughout the Roman empire, especially in the neighbouring countries of Syria, Asia (modern Turkey) and Egypt. It is also possible that the “twelve tribes” is intended to designate the Christian Church in general, the new Israel.

            Unlike the Epistle to the Ephesians James does not develop themes at length. He is dependent on Hebrew Wisdom tradition and the teaching of Jesus, particularly as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Sometimes he makes his points in brief statements (to us at times enigmatic), even with unfamiliar images. His original readers would have been able to fill in from their Christian teaching, knowledge which James presupposes. In today’s reading he begins by stating that everything in our Christian lives comes from the good and perfect God, Father of light. He has chosen us Christians as his children by “the message of truth”, the Gospel, as a sort of first-fruits, choice parts, to bear witness to him – an indication of how dear we are to him.

            James goes on to speak of “the word which is planted in our souls”. Paul (1 Thessalonians 2:13) could write of his Gospel preaching not as the word of humans, but, as it really is, the word of God which is at work in believers. We might speak of it as the gift of the Holy Spirit within believers, inspiring to action. This inner divine presence is to become alive in genuine Christian living.

            The reading ends with an excellent definition of the essence of Christianity in all ages: love of the neighbour, especially those in need (“widows and orphans”) and love of God, shown by service of him alone, keeping oneself free from worldly ways.

Gospel (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23).

The Pharisees were very much part of Jewish life in Jesus’ day, and for a century and a half before. They were lay persons, with a devotion emulating that of the priests in the Temple. They were known for their special practices of washing for ritual (non hygienic) purposes, washing of their hands, pots and pans and so on. Although limited in number (about four thousand), they and their special practices were very influential with the general public. The scribes were specialists in the Law of Moses hut many would have sympathy for the Pharisees’ way of life. We should note here how Jesus goes to the heart if the issue: purity of heart, internal religion, rather than insignificant externals such as washing. In the second part of the reading, addressed to “the people” in general, not to Pharisees, scribes or his apostles, Jesus spells this out further: cleanliness, purity, of heart, the heart regarded as the source of human action.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Where is the Christian Vision gone? The Church in public life

More than once we now hear statements by politicians that the Church can have no place in public life, as if this were a danger to the proper running of public affairs. Among academics there can be perceived an anti-clericalism, even an anti-Christian attitude, with a desire and an effort to exclude Christian theology and Christian ministers of religion from the academic field. The drive towards this end has ben ongoing for a long time. The mentality behind it has been expressed as follows by the Second Vatican Council in its pastoral Constitution in the Church in the modern world (7 December 1965): “There seems to be some apprehension today that a close association between human activity and religion will endanger the autonomy of the human person, of organizations and of science”.

            A prevailing attitude of this sort should be a call for believers to reflect on the issues and reacquaint themselves with the fundamental principles concerning the principles involved. It should be a call to recall and reawaken the Christian vision of life and work for the presence of the Church in public affairs.

            Fundamental to Christian belief are the two basic commandments, on which the whole of Jewish expectation and Christian message depend, love of God and love of one’s neighbour: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two command-ments hang the whole law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). One implies the other. Belief in God requires involvement in all that is truly human. The Letter of James puts is clearly: “Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world” (James 1:27).

            The Church, the believing community, has been active living these commandments throughout history, in social welfare, care for weak and neglected, in education, in the arts, in literature and the sciences. It is believers, the Church, which has given us the modern world, a strong element of which would wish to forget it. Modern social values of care for the weak, of reconciliation rather than revenge, and a host of other values, are parts of the rich Christian heritage.

            This Christian heritage calls on us all to know its value and defend it.

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