God is totally other
We do not know any thing, or person, who is “totally other”. Whatever we do know we learned because it had some kind of relationship with something or someone we do know. “Have you ever tasted octopus? Well it’s a lot like chicken.” We learn the new on the basis of the old. Comparing and contrasting help us to grasp the unknown. What happens when the Unknowable comes into our lives?
We can know somethings about the Unknowable, but only by extracting from something we do know, such as what love is. God is so totally other that even what we mean by “other” is other than that. What did he say? Yup, even what we mean by “mystery” falls short as some kind of definition of God.
Two helpful things come from this. It gets us off the hook in trying to find, know, figure out and even imagine God. The second thing is that how God is love and does love is beyond our understanding. We cannot earn it or lose it; it just is and never is anything, but personal. As soon as we figure something or someone out, it or they become tending toward being boring. That is why spouses and other good friends should and do remain mysteries and God is even more un-figure-outable than your spouse, thank God for that.
Here in North America we are celebrating Labor Day tomorrow. This holiday recognizes the contributions of those who labor for the benefit of the common good. The first Monday of September is a day of rest from the laborings of modern industry. Our personal prayer and our Sunday liturgies are experiences of rest to catch up with how God labors unceasingly for our personal and common good. We believe that God is not finished with our being created. We become lost, distracted, disoriented as to who we are personally and communally. We forget, deny, rebel, and then God seems to find ways to get our attention. Every day is Labor Day for God and every day the product of that industry is our maturing lives.
We hear today in our First Reading a continuation of the final instruction from the great wonder-worker, Moses. He has reviewed all the great works of God which have brought the nation Israel to the point of taking possession of their new land. All their enemies have been subdued and now Moses has some words about how to keep order in the nation.
Much of the book of Deuteronomy is taken up with the description of the laws and customs which will characterize how the nation will preserve its relationship with God. Almost all of their human activities are described according to the way God has decided. The external observances of these ways will express the solidity and sincerity of their interior relationship with the God Who has saved them and brought them to this land. These actions then are to be a reflection of the relationship rather than displays for their own sake. They are meant as well to be an aid to proper order within the community. They reflect a wisdom and intelligence whose result will be a one and holy nation. God is working through Moses’ words to bring about human unity. Nobody is to add or subtract from them. They are perfect and when something is perfect any change is an imperfection.
We hear in today’s Gospel that Jesus is having quite a day of labor. The Pharisees and their scribes who know both the original laws of Moses and those added to by the “elders” or rabbis during the centuries, question Jesus about His disciples’ not observing exactly the traditions. The Pharisees have the evidence of the non-conformity of the disciples and so there is a tension and a teaching moment.
The outside actions are important for personal and communal well being. What Jesus is laboring for us to understand is that the outward is to be a reflection and display of the inner relationship with the Holy God. Then these actions will be holy themselves, because of that interior relationship. External actions by themselves are nothing but external actions. We are inside-out human beings and Jesus states things very clearly. What makes a person unclean is not from outside, such as not washing one’s hands or face, but the uncleanness is inside already and as long as that is not tended to, unclean actions will display the inner disorder. Jesus describes quite a list of human tendencies toward evil and disorder. Most of us have experienced the attraction we have to such evils. Take your pick, you do not have to look up in a dictionary the definitions of these basic human tendencies. Jesus is saying that they lie within us and washing cups and hands will not remove the reality of our human fragmentation. The “elders” have piled up so many externals that the observance of them had become what religion was. The external became disconnected with the interior relationship which is the basis of holiness.
Showing-off is different from showing-out. External religious actions do help our interior relationship with the transcendent God. Jesus labors to bring order into the human experience of being human. Israel was to take possession of its new land. Jesus work of salvation is to assist us to take possession of ourselves as His new land. Jesus has described the disordering forces which are part of our personal and communal lands. Greed, theft, murder, and various forms of envy are parts of the human land. We are not abandoned to these forces, but accompanied by God’s grace through the saving laboring of Jesus.
Here at our university it is a cause of delight to notice the changes, externally, of some of our male students when they have “fallen in love” with a female student. Their externals are quite cleaner in clothing and language, more gentle of gestures and more smiley of countenance. Their former externals were not always so gracious which were expressions of less relationality. Jesus courts us and heals us from sad, lost, violent, and ungrateful interiors. He extends to us the desire of God to relate, love, and bring us into the new land of holiness. This holiness does express itself in outward activities, just as our love-struck sophomores express themselves as having been in love. Jesus’ Labor Day is every moment and our laboring days reflect His permanent loving relationships of salvation. He subdues our personal interior enemies and brings us from the inside to the out of showing Him out.
“O Lord, how great is the depth of the kindness which you have shown to those who love you.” Ps. 31,20
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