Our readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time call us to a painful overhaul of our heart. It is always painful to probe the recesses of the heart because whatever we find in it might flatten our presumptions and shatter a status quo which might be a state of lukewarmness. It is standard procedure for me to warn myself, first, and my congregation about the lurking danger of self-delusion. Since it would be self-delusion in matters of eternal life and eternal death, it is something to be taken most seriously.
This very serious type of self-delusion stems from insufficient time given to silent prayer and to prayer of attentive listening to the Word. This is how God puts it through the pen of St. James:
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only DELUDING YOURSELVES. [James 1:21-22]
Today’s Word gives us a precise and clear order: you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. [Deuteronomy 4:2]
What seems intriguing to me is that the Lord is, first, ordering us not to add to His Law. It is obvious that, if some people were not in love with the Lord, there would always be some commandments that they would like to eliminate. But here the Lord addresses our tendency, as the lukewarm, prone to self-delusion disciples that we are, to add what is of our liking and choosing rather than: 1) Welcoming His Word as and when It is uttered; 2) Reflecting on It so as to learn exactly God’s will; and 3) To become doers of It once It has become clear to us.
In the Old Testament, God’s Law was detailed and, yet, “blurry” for lack of an eloquent example of total adherence and obedience to it. However, in the New Testament, we do not have any excuse because Jesus, the Son of God, has lived as Son of Man, i.e. within all human limits, conditions and situations, yet in total adherence and obedience to the will of the Father. Furthermore, he has simplified the whole Law reducing it to a new and simple commandment: “love one another as I have loved you.” [John 13:34]
We have the pattern (Jesus) and we have the new commandment. Thus, we know exactly the direction to which any Word that is planted in our hearts is taking: It will always be directing us to love one another even up to the ultimate self-sacrifice on our “cross,” just as Jesus did.
No excuses are possible or reasonably acceptable.
Furthermore, we are called to assemble together every Sunday to remind each other of the extent to which the new commandment is binding us (as I have loved you) and also to keep us focused on the compelling evidence that this is the only law required for Life: the Resurrection of Christ over all evils, death included. Jesus’ Resurrection is THE guarantee that, with God’s grace, we can push ourselves to the limit of giving up even our physical life in fulfillment of the new commandment, firmly certain of a share in the Resurrection.
I am stating all this with emphasis because, then, all sorts of pious practices, special prayers, and religious devotions that some people add to their daily activities can become the breeding ground for presumption and self-delusion.
For the longest time, I have been wondering why this happens; why some people prefer to add all that they add to the new commandment. I came up with two reasons; the same ones chosen unwittingly by the scribes and Pharisees of old and by countless others who worry about outward appearance. First of all, the Word penetrates any human barrier, prayers and religious devotions included. (cf. Hebrews 4:12) Alas, some prefer self-delusion, in a pious environment of their own choosing, to God’s urging to welcome the Word, to dwell on It and to act on It. Those added pious practices are helpful only after the Word has been welcomed, reflected upon and put into practice, daily. We cannot welcome, reflect on and act upon God’s Word unless we have, first, put aside our preferences and readied our minds and hearts to embrace God’s will. Appearances and make-believes are easier and more rewarding than humble, unassuming submission to God’s Word.
Secondly, there is the fear, bordering on terror, of allowing the Word to penetrate the recesses of the heart. We all fear to look inside our heart because we might discover some—or all— of the ugly tendencies and drives that we have been noticing, judging and condemning in others. Jesus would lament such choice in these words: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”
These are the two reasons that I found present in myself and in others. We cannot simply admit having them, of course; so we might continue to add nice practices, and this and that, and anything else that would increase our chances of appearing pious while delaying the probing of the Word. We might ease our conscience by claiming that we do what we do for the glory of God, the defense of the Church and for the sake of orthodoxy…
Today, we can decide to keep appearing pious or to simplify things beginning with a courageous resolve to allow daily, prolonged, silent time to welcome the divine action which the Word is designed to perform in our minds and hearts. The more we do this, the more the chances that the Word might burst the bubble of our self-delusion and set us on the way to ponder It properly, in docile submission, and to become genuine doers of the new commandment.