In today’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders, the righteous ones who are the teachers and mentors to those trying to live as God expects. Yet his words are not words of praise for them, instead he is bluntly telling them they have missed understood the path to righteousness. If you read the scriptures you will find that these leaders missed understanding God’s mercy and forgiveness.
If you were one of the members of their temple you learned you sinned was when you failed to follow any one of the laws and rituals. Therefore what became important was to strictly follow those laws and rituals. Jesus when he began his mission to restore us to “righteousness” focused on a person’s inward disposition not their outward posture. This is clearly seen in the story of the prodigal son and the reaction of the older brother toward the restoration of that wayward son.
Today we have another comparison of two brothers – one seemingly outwardly committed to do the father’s will and the other outwardly rebellious and refusing to do the fathers will.
A memory from the past came to me as I was praying about this week’s gospel and it was of my 4th grade teacher Sr. Anthony. She demanded we keep our hands on the desk top at all times; she demanded our eyes forward and backs straight and she demanded silence and we could only speak when we were called upon. She demanded a hand to be raised if you had a question or needed something. I will avoid telling you the penalty for any deviation from those rules but needless to say her penalty was painful and I was on the receiving end of her punishment far too many times.
The result of my many violations was I began to follow the rules outwardly while my mind was elsewhere. I could force my way to obedience but following the rules did nothing to change my heart. Nor were her rules conducive to my learning the lessons she was teaching us – which by the way was “religion.
Do we still measure “holiness” by our adherence to a standard established over decades or centuries of attendance at church, at spiritual growth programs or retreats? Do we get upset when people are not “reverent enough” while in church or the music is not conducive to our standard of appropriateness? Are we shocked by the way people dress to come to church? You know the answer is yes because those are very things we hear from our brothers and sisters.
Today as we seek to grow spiritually we have not wandered far from the concept measuring “holiness” by looking at the outward expressions of faith we observe others as they are in church. We do have a “standard of holiness we measured by what we can visibly see. The simple truth is that inwardly we commit the same sins as “pagans” and commit them to the same degree of frequency. Where we differ from them is in our posture in a religious setting. We seem to be pious because we have learned how to behave in the presence of others just as I did in Sr. Anthony’s classroom.
What is it that God desires most from us? He told us plainly and clearly when he said “you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, strength and soul.” Jesus added another dimension to the great command when he said we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
So the question for us is what are we doing when we are in that posture of prayer; are we just reciting words without engaging our hearts? Are we the son in today’s gospel whose words comply with his father’s will but his actions never did comply with God’s desire? Are we the other son who rebelled and refused to do the father’s will but his heart moves him to suppress his own will to do the fathers will.
What is your heart telling you? Are we just trying to please God because we fear the consequences of not pleasing him or is our motivation based on our understanding of the depth of God’s love for us?
Jesus in his own words tells us “he came to show us the Father.” Well this gospel story tells God sees our duplicity in our outward posture complying with the will of God while inward we continue to do our own will. He is not fooled by our religious acts of piety nor is he fooled by our outward appearance of holiness.
Our mindset needs to be that of the son who was outwardly disobedient but his hearts moves him to do the father’s will. Unfortunately we have all been taught by Sr. Anthony to say we will do what is required but instead we follow our own will and hide our actions in a cloak of righteousness.
We know what God desires most from us is our hearts so I encourage you to begin every prayer by saying to God I give you my heart.
Then as you say the words of your prayer or devotion center yourself on giving God your heart. Say to the Father as I come before you this day I give you my heart; like the prodigal son I come before you knowing I have sinned but I come before you seeking your embrace. Like the woman caught in adultery I stand before you with my sin evident and I desire to hear your words offering me forgiveness not condemnation, therefore like her I stand before you and offer you my heart.