Sunday, September 2, 2018
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time B
I come from a long, long line of serious pinochle players. When I was a kid, we’d all pile into the station wagon every Sunday night and head over to my grandparents’ house where Mom and Dad, Mémère and Pépère, would play hand after hand of cards. (In fact, my parents still go over on Sunday nights to play pinochle with my 93-year-old grandmother.)
As a kid, I would try to follow the game—to learn the many rules about bids, suits, runs, trump, tricks, points…but I just couldn’t keep it all straight in my head. (I clearly didn’t inherit the Giroux pinochle gene.) To play pinochle well, you need to know the rules by heart—to the point where you don’t need to consciously think about them anymore—so that you can develop some strategy and finesse. But once you know the rules by heart, then you can really get down to playing your cards—and playing your partner and your opponents as well. One thing I did learn watching so many pinochle games was that, if you play fast and loose with the rules, or if you forget something or make a mistake…watch out! Your error will be called out.
The rules that govern pinochle give the game shape, providing order and structure. The rules are there to protect the game’s integrity. And, although we very rarely think of it that way, the rules are there to preserve the fun. Without all those rules, pinochle would be no fun at all.
Our first reading this Sunday comes from the Book of Deuteronomy. It’s not exactly on the best seller list of the books of the Bible. When the scriptures refer to “the law,” they’re usually referring to Deuteronomy…which makes it sound about as interesting as reading New York State traffic laws or the U.S. tax code. But Deuteronomy is actually a crucial book for the people of Israel and, therefore, also crucial for us. So let us explore two aspects of Deuteronomy that are especially worth our consideration this Sunday.
(1) Since Deuteronomy is a book of laws, what would you expect the most commonly repeated words to be? Probably “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not,” right? But the most common word in Deuteronomy is “heart.”
That’s why God’s law exists: to protect the integrity of your heart. We’ve somehow developed the false notion that rules are made to restrict our freedom; but, especially when it comes to divine law, the opposite is actually true: the rules are there to enhance our freedom. Imagine trying to play cards or Scrabble or golf or baseball when every player makes his or her own rules—anything goes. That wouldn’t be a game; it’d be chaos! Instead of having fun, you’d be incredibly frustrated. God’s law is there to provide necessary order, to give essential structure.
Just like in a game, God’s law only really works when we know it by heart. Now, I don’t just mean memorizing the 10 Commandments (although that’s a very, very good idea). What I mean is more like what we heard this morning from the Letter of St. James: that we are to welcome God’s that is planted in us. It’s not enough to hear and repeat it; we must be doers of God’s word. That’s what Jesus is getting at, too, when he quotes the prophet Isaiah to the Pharisees: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” When it comes to the law of God, merely going through the motions won’t do. When I obey God, I have to put my heart into it, and allow it to be put in into my heart—planted deep.
God’s law was never meant to be imposed harshly from the outside, left carved into cold tablets of stone; it demands to be inscribed on the fleshy tablets of the human heart. It’s not enough to study and recite the moral law. It’s not enough to accomplish all the required externals—making sure we appear all clean and tidy on the outside. It’s not enough to call out corruption where we see it in others. God’s law is meant to become part of the very fabric of our lives. We must know it by heart, in the deepest sense.
(2) In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t simply relay law after law in an apparently endless list. He puts it into context by retelling much of Israel’s history. When the people need to remember who they are, they look to Deuteronomy. And in that retelling, Moses seems to include this warning: you have not learned from your own past.
Certainly, Moses recalls the many blessings God has given and wonders he has done. But he also recounts what happens whenever Israel takes these blessing for granted, or is unfaithful in observing the covenant, or makes compromises with other nations—whenever this people gets neglectful of God and his law: utter collapse and total ruin. Everything falls apart! In fact, as we can see time and again in the Old Testament, God will use the enemies of Israel—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans—to expose the infidelity, the ugliness, the evil, the wickedness, the filth, the sin of his people. The Lord doesn’t allow this in order to humiliate them, but to provide them with the opportunity to repent, to reform, to be converted. Getting their sin out into the open is the first step toward being healed.
But there’s another pattern that must be noticed running right alongside this one: even when they’ve been most unfaithful to God, God has always remained faithful to them. God is a loving Father who does not, cannot, will not ever, ever change.
At the end of our few verses from Deuteronomy today, Moses tells the people that this law they’ve been given will be evidence of Israel’s greatness among the nations. That’s not simply to say they can stand tall because they’ve got better rules than everyone else (although that’s true); instead, it’s meant to reveal how very close God is to this people. This is not their own doing, not a point of pride. They didn’t chose the Lord; the Lord choose them. Israel’s duty to be faithful to the law is not in order to appease a stern, grumpy God preoccupied with the rules, but is rather to show to the rest of the world what it looks like to stay close to God so that all peoples will be attracted to it and desire it for themselves.
Living by God’s law means trusting that God really does know what’s best for us—yes, even better than we do! That’s what we call faith. And our faithfulness is supposed to point to God faithfulness.
Which is why when we allow ourselves to be defiled by the wickedness that comes from within, or to be stained by the sinful ways of the world, we obscure the nearness of God. When our religion is less than pure, it gives a counter witness. When those who claim to belong to God fail to care for the most vulnerable—widows and orphans, in the words of St. James—or, even worse, to abuse their power, or prey on the weak, or turn a blind eye, or walk away, or complain loudly but neglect to act, then what the Lord intended to be a sure and inviting pathway to his presence instead becomes an obstacle, a stumbling block. The Greek word for such a “stumbling block” is skandalon—a scandal.
Which, of course, brings us from the experience of ancient Israel to that of the Catholic Church today.
Whether in pinochle or in life, we don’t get to choose our own cards. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. Which is why I think we need to see the darkness and crisis of our times as a call from God: a call to take his law to heart; a call to remember and learn from our past; a call to be faithful—more faithful than ever!—because Jesus Christ will always remain faithful to us.
We who belong to the Catholic Church have a closeness, an access to God that far surpasses even that of ancient Israel. God lives among us, is amazingly near to us, not confined within the walls of a single temple in Jerusalem, but in the Most Holy Eucharist. In the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, God is with us in all the tabernacles of the world; in the Bread of Life, the Lord is as close as close can be: dwelling right within us.
In the course of her 2,000-year history, the Church has recorded several Eucharistic miracles. On a few occasions—generally, when faith has grown weak—Catholics have witnessed the Scared Host at Mass visibly, physically turn into human flesh. And when scientific tests on that flesh have been performed centuries later, they always find the same thing: that it’s cardiac muscle. At Mass, Jesus gives us his battered, bleeding heart to unite it with our bruised and wounded hearts. Jesus is the divine law, God’s Word, written in human flesh and blood—flesh and blood he has given to be our food and drink. That’s such an amazing, precious gift! We must never take it for granted! And we must never let our sinfulness become an obstacle—a scandal—that blocks our way or anyone else’s to drawing so very close to Christ when he comes to meet us upon the altar.
I have a wish, a hope, a desire for the Church—and when I say “the Church,” I don’t mean “those guys” who need to make some big changes “over there,” but us folks—each and every one of us—in need of renewal and conversion right here. My hope is that the Church will do far better when it comes to finding her way through these painful, confusing times than I did when it came to learning the rules of pinochle. And that’s because what’s a stake isn’t winning a card game; what’s at stake is dwelling with the Lord, now and forever.
God’s law has been given to guard our integrity. Let us be sure we’ve taken it to heart.