22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 68:5 refers to God as the “Father of fatherless, defender of the widows.” In the Book of Zechariah (7:6-10), the prophet is calling out and condemning those who refuse to judge with true justice, those who do not show kindness and compassion, those who oppress the widows and the orphans, those who take advantage of the poor and the weak, those who entertain evil thoughts within the heart. What we can surmise from these passages is this: God, the Father of the orphans and defender of the widows, can only be honored and worshipped by doing justice and showing compassion to the poor, the weak and the oppressed and keeping oneself from evil things.
This is echoed in today’s second reading, from the Letter of James. James contrasts empty ritual with true worship. And he calls authentic religion pure – a word that usually refers to the kind of worship that is acceptable and pleasing to God. Here James echoes the Old Testament teaching about what God truly desires: obedience to his word and compassion towards the poor and the weak. What James is saying is this: The best way we can worship God is through service of the poor and personal purity.
All through history, people have tried to make ritual and liturgy as substitute service and works of mercy. This is not to say that there is something wrong in seeking to offer the noblest ritual and the most splendid worship in God’s house. We owe to God the finest liturgy. But it is to say that all such worship or liturgy is hollow unless it moves people to love God by loving one another and to walk more purely in tempting ways of the world.
Our worship, our Christian liturgy is empty unless it leads us to Christian service. It is meaningless unless it impels us to serve the poor and those in need, to defend the weak and the powerless, to seek justice for the victims of oppression. It is worthless unless it translates into practical charity, works of mercy and acts of compassion. It is useless unless it moves us to live a life pleasing to God.
James is condemning a religion that is devoid of service, a worship that is empty of practical charity. Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, is condemning the same thing. Quoting the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus denounces the kind of worship that consists of lip service only: “These people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” We should take this is as a warning to us!
One question that each of us should not fail to ask is: Is my heart far from God? Do I give more time to keeping a clean house than a clean heart? My mouth, my lips, and my hands may be worshipping God, but if my heart is not focused on what it should be focused, my worship is empty, meaningless, and worth nothing. I must ask the Lord to help me to focus on his love for me and my love for him and my neighbor in order to make my worship of him worthwhile, meaningful and pleasing to him.
It is not enough that we go to Mass every Sunday (or even everyday) without serving our neighbor and community, in one way or another. It is not enough that we visit the Blessed Sacrament regularly without getting involved in the life of the poor. It is not enough that we say the rosary and various novena prayers without participating in the work of social transformation. Honoring God with one’s heart, more than simply honoring him with one’s lips, is one of the principles Jesus proposes. We must honor God with a heart that is converted and renewed, formed in meekness and humility, filled with mercy and compassion, and beating for service and love – just like the heart of Jesus.
We tend to put more value on the superficial realities of our faith than on the essence and substance of it – which is love of God and love of neighbor. Honoring God with one’s heart, more than simply honoring him with one’s lips, is one of the principles Jesus proposes. The Lord reminds us that religion cannot be rooted on external actions; because, first and foremost, it comes from the heart. Religion is a thing of the heart. It is a thing of the heart called LOVE – love of God and love of neighbor.
Let us end with a prayer: Lord God, help us to honor and worship You not only with our lips but also with our lives… not only with our heads, but also with our hearts. Help us also to make our religion a religion of feeling compassion, showing mercy, doing justice, and practising love. Amen.