There is an expression, it is what is on the inside that counts. There are times when we say that a book cannot be judged by its cover. There is a thought that for it to be possible to get to what is important, we need to get to the heart of the matter. Or, we need to look deep inside to reflect upon the most significant aspects of life. These expressions point out to us that we need to look past appearances on the outside to see what is real on the inside.
This is the message Moses delivers in the first reading today. He stresses to the people the closeness of God, and the importance of the heart in understanding the way of life to which God calls us. For it is there where God dwells. “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?”
But for me, and perhaps for you, the question becomes, how aware am I of this closeness of God? Do I take the time to look deep within, or am I too busy with tasks and actions to seek to discover the presence of God in my life, or to see how God is trying to move my heart closer to the life giving relationship that fulfills?
I do not know about you, but I find it difficult sometimes to slow down from the busy tasks that seem to be important. In fact, sometimes they are important. But sometimes I become surprised when I realize how quickly time has passed, and how much I have missed when I stop to think of all of the things I miss as a result. Even though I think I am about doing good things, too often I am tempted to be so busy that I lose sight of the priorities of the things I should really pay attention to in my own life. I work and work and work only to learn that I have missed out on the very things that are really important.
Harry Chapin expressed this in a folk song in the 70s with his song, Cats in the Cradle. If you are of a certain generation, you probably know it well enough to sing it if I were to begin it. It tells the story of a father who is so busy that he misses out on the relationship with his son. Work, work, work. And in the song we see the lack of receiving the most important gift caused the son to live in the same way.
Do we pay attention enough to the priorities of God? Or are we moving from place to place, from this activity to that one, and as such, find little or no real time for God? For what we learn from the gospel is this lack of attention to the heart is not just about being a good father or mother. It is not just keeping the proper work-life balance. No, this temptation to be perpetually active is the temptation of the spiritual life too.
Talk to me about parishes I have served in, or schools I have taught in, and I will tell you all of the things we accomplished there. But do I ever stop to ask myself, “Through my preaching, and with my prayer, are the people here being made more holy because they see God in my witness?” In other words, do I place so much emphasis on the activities and programs that I lose sight of the importance of simply finding the presence of God, reflecting upon his word, simply being with God, rather than doing for God?
This seems to be a point Jesus is seeking to drive home in this gospel. Were the Pharisees bad people? It is not readily apparent that is the case. Saint Paul, for example was a Pharisee. Some scripture scholars suggest the Jesus too may have been a Pharisee. The difficulty encountered when Jesus argues with the Pharisees does not appear to me to be one where it is incompatible to be a Pharisee and a follower of God, but rather that the emphasis upon external actions is not to grow in deeper relationship with God, but to be seen as someone who might be doing that. In fact, in one part of the gospel Jesus says as much.
The problem we encounter is when we make high demands with our words but fall very short in our actions. I found it interesting to see a headline on the CNN website discussing the hypocrisy of Josh Duggar, the child in the reality show featuring his very large family who admitted to molesting his sisters and then recently was on the “Madison Ashley” list, that website people could apparently sign up for if they wanted to have a little fling or sexual affair. It was not the news story about Josh Duggar specifically, but rather the headline that not only emphasized Josh Duggar as a hypocrite, but had a feature related that referred to as “Other hypocrites”.
What struck me was the tone that suggested it was only the people who were on that list that were hypocrites. Maybe there are others who are not hypocrites, but I know I am a hypocrite. I am like Saint Paul too often, knowing the good I should do but choosing the bad. I tell people one thing and do another. As much as I would like to say I am a good example of witnessing to God’s holiness in my life, I know that I do not. I fail. I sin.
Pope Francis when asked to identify himself in a news interview early in his papacy, said this. When asked, “Who is Jorge Borgoglio?” his answer was that he was a sinner. The pope’s witness to being concerned for the poor and living a simple life has clearly gotten the attention of people all over the world. And yet, he does not refer to those actions as defining characteristics of his identity. He is, rather, a sinner, redeemed by Jesus.
This is what the Pharisees forgot. They felt that by clinging to the traditions of their ancestors in the easy things, they could consider their witness authentic. But the Christian witness is not easy. When a homeless person walks toward me, begging for a gift, inside I want to run the other way. There is a part of me that can feel put out if I have to do something for the less fortunate. Why are they bothering me? Why are they taking my time?
I have noticed, though, that when I feel this way, it is also often at the same time I realize I have not been silent in the presence of God, seeking his will, stilling my heart to discover him. It is, rather, when I think my activities, whatever they are, are more important than seeing the face of Christ in the world, in those most difficult people.
The sinful inclination is fed not first in our actions, but starts in our hearts. Interestingly, the disposition mentioned in the second reading that leads to being a doer of the word is also found first in the heart. So if you are busy, try to take a few moments to slow down and find God.