You Abandon God's Commandments and Cling to Mere Human Traditions

22nd Sunday in OT 3 Sept 06  :: Dt 4:1-8 :: Ps 14 :: James 1:17-27 :: Mk 7:1-23
by Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB

The readings today from Divine Revelation deal heavily with morality.  Morality is knowing the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil, between doing God’s will and refusing to do God’s will.  It is very important for us to remember that only God determines what is right and what is wrong; only God establishes the moral order.   

Is it right or wrong to experiment on human embryos, or to create human embryos in a laboratory so as to harvest stem cells?  God alone determines that.  Doctors do not determine the morality of this, nor does the NIH, nor the government.  Is single sex marriage, or cohabitation, right or wrong?  Only God determines this.  Not the homosexual lobbyists, or the secular media or society at large.  God alone establishes the moral order, because He is the Lord and Sovereign of all mankind.  God created us according to His own design.  Thus, whatever enhances human nature and assists us in moving towards our perfection as persons is morally good and right.  But whatever destroys or weakens human nature, and places barriers between us and our perfection as persons, is morally evil and wrong.   

God alone determines the moral order.  The Church can only teach what God’s plan is for the moral order.  The Church cannot add to, or subtract from, God’s plan.  The Church does not create the moral order; she can only faithfully teach God’s plan for morality. 

In the Gospel today Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees (the religious leaders of the day) for their refusal to distinguish between God’s commandments and mere human traditions.  He used the words of the prophet Isaiah: “This people only pays me lip service; but their heart is far from me.  In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the mere precepts of men.  You abandon God’s Commandments and cling to mere human traditions.”  Jesus is saying the same thing to you and me.  How so? 

Let us look briefly at a few examples from both pubic morality (what concerns the broader society) and from private morality (what deals with our private lives).  Morality means that we have an obligation to do the good, to defend what is right; and on the other hand to expose and resist the evil, the wrong, the unjust. 

Back in 1995 Pope John Paul told Americans in Newark: “Your country stands upon the world scene as a model of a democratic society at an advanced stage of development.  Your power of example carries with it heavy responsibilities.  Use it well, America!”  In other words, where much has been given, much is expected.  This country enjoys tremendous material wealth.  We enjoy the full use of freedom to exercise our human rights.  We are presently the only “super power” in the world.  We have opportunities to take a direct role in self-government, or in our democratic form of government.  But are we using well the power of our example before the rest of the world?

 The big question here is:  Where do we go for guidance in setting our priorities:  to God, or to public opinion, as expressed by the secular media in television and the newspapers?  Do we do what is right in the sight of God, or do we simply follow what is convenient, or expedient, or the trends of the times?  What should be our attitude to the world around us?  To the Middle East?  To the under-developed Third World?  To the threat of international terrorism?  During elections, what are the criteria we use to select candidates for public office?  In all these matters, we should be informing our conscience with good moral principles, as found in Gaudium et spes and in other documents of the Church’s social teaching.  We should read the American bishops’ 1998 document, Living the Gospel of Life: a Challenge to American Catholics.  If we are not informing our conscience with good moral principles and moral reasoning, then we become the unwitting victims of the culture around us.  We settle for mere human traditions, and ignore God’s commandments. 

Let us move a little closer to home.  In this country we have removed the protection of the law from every unborn baby.  A mother can choose to have an abortionist kill her unborn baby anytime during the pregnancy.   The present law allows her to do this; it provides no protection for the baby.  But God’s commandment is that we should never kill an innocent human being, because all life belongs to God alone.  In 1973 the majority of the Supreme Court Justices ruled that a mother has a right to choose to take the life of her unborn baby.  And many in our country defend that totally unjust law, and that completely unfounded “right to choose to take the life of a baby.”  What is our reaction?  Do we accept this travesty of law?  Do we take the attitude “Live and let live?”  Or do we find ways to reduce the number of abortions?  Do we express our dissatisfaction with Roe v. Wade, and attempt to repeal that ruling?   Do we understand that accepting abortion disqualifies a candidate from public office, just as would accepting slavery or racial discrimination would also disqualify him or her? 

Let us move even closer to home.  When we deal with marriage, spousal love and family planning, whose guidance do we follow?  God’s guidance, as expressed through the Magisterium of the Church, or mere human traditions, as expressed by Planned Parenthood, NOW, the pharmaceutical industry and the majority of American medical doctors?  In the matters of contraception and sterilization, the majority of Catholic couples have chosen the latter.  85% of Catholic couples of childbearing age have rejected God’s plan for spousal love and family planning.  They reject God’s plan for spousal love, that every marital act must remain open to both the unitive (love-giving) dimension and to the procreative (life-giving) dimension.  They reject God’s plan, that spousal love was meant to be making the total gift of self to one’s spouse, and then the acceptance of her total gift of self to him: no conditions, and no reservations.   

And today we are seeing the consequences of that rejection.  Today there are more and more divorces, complaints that there is a lack of real communication in marriages, more families without a father present, more young men without the guidance and discipline of a father, more promiscuity, and more abortion.  It is a sad situation to see, when so many couples abandon God’s commandments, and cling to mere human traditions.  There is a big price to pay here.  We don’t break the Commandments; they break us. 

In the first reading we heard Moses speak to the people on God’s behalf.  He was telling them how fortunate they were to hear God’s statutes and commandments: “Keep them and do them: for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?  And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Dt 4:6-8). 

And in the second reading, St. James reminds us that it is not enough to hear the word; we must act upon the word.  “Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the work, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves….  But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing” (James 1:21-5). 

Brothers and sisters, God speaks to us through the written words of the Bible, and through the teachings of the Church He established to instruct every generation.  Let us hear God’s words.  Let those words take root in our hearts and our lives.  May we meditate upon those words and treasure them for their wisdom and guidance in our lives.  And then let us put God’s commandments into practice.  Then we shall be his people.  Then we shall offer Him an acceptable worship.  And only then will we achieve true happiness.