Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
If you’ve ever had the chance to read any of Dante’s Inferno, you understand that he has different levels to the inferno, hell, which is determined by the sin that you commit. One of those layers in the inferno are for the hypocrites. More than anything else in all of the Gospels, Jesus attacks the scribes and pharisees for being hypocrites. The way Dante describes hell for the hypocrites is that they wear these golden capes which look beautiful on the outside, shiny, nice too look at, everything seems right; but underneath they are made of lead. So everything may be looking fine on the outside, but inside they are dead. What Dante has the hypocrites experience is the weight of this golden image in order to see the “hell” that it creates.
This is why Jesus uses this image so harshly and frequently with the scribes and Pharisees. They were the masters of the law; they knew everything about it. Jesus never says that the law is bad or wrong, but simply keeps stressing over and over to them that if it never penetrates the heart, it doesn’t carry as much weight. By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the law has grown to enormous number, and like we so often do in our own Church, they began to equate it all with the Torah; there was no differential between what was most important and what had lesser weight and they were constantly going after the people about following the laws and prescripts, as well as the rituals, creating a burden on others, but in turn, was doing nothing to change hearts, and for Jesus, yes, the law was important, but it had to be connected with the conversion and transformation of hearts. It’s obvious that it never penetrated the hearts of the scribes and pharisees. In the end, they ended up murdering this guy because of their golden capes; their hearts weren’t changed and transformed.
No one knows that better than the Israelites. All seems well in the first reading from Deuteronomy today. If you practice and uphold all the laws and rituals, then somehow God would reward you. It was a very superficial understanding of the law. It won’t be until they are sent out into the desert where they begin to see that there is more to this relationship with God, more than just abiding by the laws. It was going to require a change of heart on their part; it was going to have to penetrate the lead or the deadness within before this transformation takes place.
James gives us a barometer or litmus test to see where are hearts are at. He says don’t just be hearers of the word but doers as well. He says that pure religion leads one to service to the orphans and widows, who were the lowest of the low in the time James writes the letter. The litmus test as to whether the love of God and the law of God is penetrating through our own golden capes is by the way we serve God and neighbor.
These readings are challenging to all of us this weekend and should be. They should make us squirm in our seats because they force us to look into our own hearts and evaluate where we are. We are all hypocrites at times in our lives, whether we like to admit it or not; and like Dante, we often create a hell for ourselves because of it. We prefer the golden cape, the image we present, but deep down we are weighed down and dying. If we leave here without being changed by this word and this Eucharist, then we need to keep coming back and seek the grace to change and transform our hearts.
As we prepare for receiving this Eucharist, we come seeking to prepare our hearts for change and transformation so that we can move beyond the hypocrisy and golden capes of our own lives, that we may allow the law and love to penetrate the dead and weight in our own lives, and live the life James challenges us to live by loving God and neighbor.