Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 2.)

A number of years ago a friend explained to me that there are two types of back-packing: traditional and ultra-light.

Traditional backpackers will carry packs that weigh sometimes between thirty to fifty pounds. They will include items such as sleeping bag, tent, extra clothes, rain gear, portable stove, propane, water bottles, portable chair, and so forth.

Ultra-light backpackers will try to eliminate as much as possible to reduce the weight they are carrying on their back. The lighter pack helps with easier movement and less opportunity for injury or accident. Using this method, backpackers will eliminate things like chairs, coffeemakers and so forth. They will cut tags off clothing and cut down the handles of their toothbrushes. In other words, anything that is superfluous is removed, they want to travel light and slim.

The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy sees Jesus speaking to a crowd of scribes and Pharisees. He examines what makes a person unclean. The interchange begins when the scribes and Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples are eating their meals with unwashed hands. Based on certain traditions, this would be seen as a violation of covenantal law.

The problem here, as Jesus expresses it, centers not so much on the law to wash, but on seeing that law within the covenant. The scribes and Pharisees have become fixed on the externals of the law. The law to wash is a comparatively minor law compared with the Ten Commandments.

One school of Jewish thought at that time regarded all the laws as equal – for example, the washing of hands had the same value as keeping holy the sabbath or obeying the commandment against murder, theft or idolatry. Jesus sees hypocrisy if the minor laws or regulations regarding purification are practiced, while the laws that represent the heart of the covenant – love of God and love of neighbor (again, the Ten Commandments would be an example) — are being disregarded. Hence Jesus’ rebuke.

Jesus then teaches them about those things that can truly defile one’s person. He speaks of those things that come from within, from one’s heart. These things are truly dangerous and can damage or destroy one’s relationships with themselves and with others. They prevent us from being truly human. They can rob us of the God-given gift of life.

The covenant represented by the law presents the way to life. God gives the law to help us live the way he created us to live — a pathway that is certainly challenging at times, but one that leads us to goodness, integrity and ultimately to love.

The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes the importance of the covenant. Moses, the person who represented Israel and received the law from God, says to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, your God is giving you. In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully…” In doing so, the path of life will be seen by other nations, and many peoples can come to know the God who loves and who gives life.

The passage from the Letter of Saint James has a similar notion. The author says that “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change …. 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.”

So we go back to Jesus and hear him speak about those things that really make us unclean or hinder us from being truly human: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” He says: “All these evils come from within and they defile.” These are the things that need to be eliminated or removed from one’s heart so that one can become the person God calls us to be.

Earlier I mentioned the two forms of backpacking. Though an analogy is not exact — the items one carries in either forms of hiking are not bad in themselves — it may help. When we carry things around in our lives that “weigh us down” our movement slows, our steps can be awkward, and accidents can more readily occur. When we act, as individuals or in our communal life, in ways that go against God’s way, then we carry baggage that does not belong in the pack (our lives).

Letting go of these things or leaving them aside will lighten the load and help us to move along the path ahead. In other words, why carry things that will hold us back? If we rid ourselves of these things, the journey will be more manageable and we can get to our destination on solid footing, it will be more enjoyable and what’s more is that we are more available to help others along the same path.

Jesus is, once again, teaching us how to live. He is showing us the path of life, the path He himself is walking. It’s up to us to follow.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.