We return to Ordinary Time with this celebration. Last February sixth was the last Ordinary Sunday for the liturgy. Since then we have prayed through the call of Lent and Easter and Pentecost. Ordinary does not mean in liturgical language a dull season. The word “ordinary” means the ordinal numbers such as first, second and third. Few of us live dull lives and so we come gathering around the Table with Jesus and His other disciples so as to live the uncommon life of faith.
We are praying this Sunday with the call to true intimacy and not just playing the game of religiosity. We need to pray for the grace of a humble heart so as to receive Christ’s healing calm. We are challenged to let go of pretense and show up dressed in our truth and enjoy the comfort of belonging by His choice and not our performance.
Hosea usually has direct and challenging words for Israel as he does for today’s First Reading. God has been threatening to punish Israel for its sinfulness. What we hear today has two sections from the prophet.
The first verses are a cultic pep-talk the people are giving to themselves. They get a little enthused about returning to their faith and practices of God’s law. They employ familiar images from their closeness to the land. The words are poetic, flowery, attractive, but in deed and fact, they are hollow. God, through the prophet, knows their hearts.
The remainder of the reading is God’s voice inviting their heartful response, not just in words, but cultic and communal actions. As every parent has said at one time or twice, “What am I going to do with you!” God uses also a familiar image from nature concerning the flimsiness of their religious commitments. Like the morning dew which vanishes is their piety and God wants more than pretense.
The invitation given to the people is to know more of God’s love for them and live that love within the community and from their hearts.
The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus in a steady conflict with the rigidity of a group of Pharisees from the more strict faction of the Jewish community. Matthew is writing his narrative of the life of Jesus with the converts from the Jewish tradition in mind. The Pharisees, of course, do not want Jesus to attract any more followers. Their resistance forms the context for many of the teachings and works of Jesus in Matthew’s writing.
In today’s reading, Matthew himself is called from behind his taxing stand. He has the name Levi in some texts. Matthew gets up, leaves his past and enters whole-heartedly into following the call. The Pharisees are bothered not only by Jesus, but by the unreligious practices of eating, imagine that, eating with known sinners, such as Matthew and other tax and custom agents.
Here we have the perfect Matthewan setting. Jesus brings about a tension and then uses the energy from that tension to highlight His ways and how they differ from those of the Pharisees. He tells them to go back to their traditional writings and learn what mercy and love of God means. Sacrifices and holocausts are as holy to God as the hearts and minds are of those who perform them.
In the United States we have many national rituals. We sing a song before almost every athletic event whose words are from a poem relating an event in which the flag remained flying after a certain battle. For the most part we don’t think about the meaning of the words nor does the singing make us feel any more committed to our flag or country. It would not be right to sing it though, something would be missing.
Relationships can have rituals too. Giving cards and presents, having dinners and parties all can have a relational depth to them, but often they are just something that has to be done to repay or “schmooze” or impress others. Rituals have been called, “Defensive Time Structures”. They can often become something we always do and by their repetition they become void of meaning and a prevention rather than a help towards intimacy. What is being defended in ritualistic habits is heartful love and interaction.
There are verbal rituals such as asking somebody how they are today. Most often we are not real interested in the answer nor are we terribly honest when we are asked about how we are. Prayerful relating with God can so easily become a “doing” a “schmoozing” and we end up wondering what good is it and why are we doing it at all.
Intimate relationships can be dangerous, because they invite us to let go of control and invite us into a greater mystery than ourselves. Intimacy with God is similar. Matthew let Jesus into his counting house and the house didn’t seem to count much any more. Change is frightening and we would always like to know what god has in the other hand.
Praying culticly or privately can render the relationship with Jesus a formality and we hope God likes what we are performing. Rituals are beautiful when they reflect outside an inside relational sense. Often the ritual can help create and or sustain the interior, but it cannot substitute for it.
The people of Israel after hearing the prophet’s words tried to talk themselves into a spirit of reverence for God, but their ritual actions were not extended to interpersonal actions of mercy, justice, and love. We are a cultic people and celebrate wonderful religious rituals and they do lead us to love tenderly, act justly and walk humbly with our God and God’s people.
“I can rely on the Lord; I can always
turn to Him for shelter. It was He Who gave me my freedom. My God,
You are always there to help me.” Ps.
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