25 August 2009. Tuesday of the 21st Week in Ordinary Time
1 Thess 2, 1-8; Psalm 139; Matthew 23, 23-26
It is not rare that Catholics have been accused of being ritualistic. The impression is not entirely false. In an age where we can watch world events as it happens, people can see our liturgies live. I remember how Catholic masses fascinated people with its pomp and pageantry especially during the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the recent World Youth Day masses of Pope Benedict XVI. The danger lies in our very strength: that we become focused on performance than the essence of the celebration; on the externals than the essentials.
The Gospel today is part of Matthew’s seven woes of the Pharisees (Luke has six). These woes are Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees, Scribes and Teachers of the Law. Teachers of the Law includes those who instructed children in the law, who wrote legal documents for others and those who took upon themselves the role of interpreting the law according to the teachings of earlier Pharisees. There are two strong words in the Gospel today: He called the Pharisees, “Blind” and “Hypocrite”. To be a hypocrite is to be a fraud, a deceiver, a fake. He puts on a show. They have concerned themselves with the minute interpretation of the law (50 volumes!), but they neglected the more important matters of faith as justice, love of God, and mercy. In their mistaken passion for the law, they lost sight of God and the purpose of the law.
Jesus first example is in verse 24, “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Leviticus 11 said that if an insect fell into one’s drink, they should be removed from the cup before it dies, or else it contaminates the drink. But any animal smaller than a lentil (eg. Garbanzos, chickpeas, etc.) like a gnat (common name for non-biting flies, looks like a mosquito and comes swarming like flies) are exempted. Although for many of us, we do not want a dying insect in our drink! The point of Jesus was that the Pharisees concern themselves with the smallest detail of the gnat, but did not mind swallowing a camel. The camel was explicitly unclean under biblical law (Leviticus 11, 4), but were the largest animal in Palestine. By focusing too much on minute matters, they neglected the weak and the needy. With all the rules and regulations they put unnecessary burdens on others while neglecting charity. The essence of the Law is love, justice and the mercy of God. The law without love is empty. In other words, they missed the mark.
Someone who misses the mark mistakes the externals as the most important than the human heart. Like giving more attention to the outside of the cup than its insides. Like fashion. Michael Bergin mentions in his book, The Other Man, how he felt like a commodity in the fashion industry when he was starting as a model. What matters is what they want to get from you, and not who you are. The photographer took a picture of his abs without even looking at his face. American author and social columnist, Fran Lebowitz said that “All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”
Presentable means how we look. We judge by what we see. The clothes we wear. How long the reader’s skirt should be. And just as the environment contributes in the promotion of values, the commercial culture promotes this tendency to be Pharisaic. Is our religion for show?
Quite the opposite with God. It is desirable that what people see externally is a reflection of who we are. There is no pretension when what we are and how we appear are consistent. Like mothers who see the truth in us. Psalm 139 reminds us that God knows every single corner of our very selves, even that part which we still do not know. Thus with God, there can be no pretension. We can deceive others by our behavior or a photo of us piously in church, but God can see our hearts. Him, we cannot conceal the truth.