By Fr. Joachim, O.P.
If you attended one of my Monday noon Masses, you will recognize this message. I think its message is important enough for more than just the Monday noon Mass attendees. So, I repeat it here with a few additions.
Last January when the U.S. bishops met for a retreat, their retreat master, Capuchin Franciscan Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, who was appointed by Pope St. John Paul II and has been the papal household preacher since 1980, reminded our U.S. bishops: “If someone were to observe the law perfectly but did not have the interior disposition of heart that comes from love, he would not, in fact, be observing the law, but would be pretending to observe it. It would be mere legalism, like that of many Pharisees.”
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul praises them for their example of faith, love, and hope. In contrast, in the Gospels, Jesus often criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their heartless, loveless, practice and application of laws, customs, and mere trivia: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.” Then Jesus goes on to list all of their trivial and hypocritical practices. Jesus notes that their misplaced priorities and their shameless hypocrisy are not, in fact, observing the law but merely pretending to do so. Jesus’ resistance to the Pharisees wasn’t about Jewish law but about the way they were administering the law to the Jewish people. They turned good news into bad news; they focused on legalism instead of spirit. I am not advocating ignoring the law for our own purposes, but I am advocating using common sense in applying the law.
It would be easy for us to shake our heads at the failures of the Jewish leaders and say shame on them, but let’s look into our own hearts. In his letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul cautions them and us not to let our religious practices become mere functions and empty signs. Practicing love, compassion, and mercy is as important, if not more important, than insisting on our interpretation of orthodoxy. Law without love is simply legalism; religious practice without love is hypocrisy. I’ll bet you never expected to hear that from a Canon Lawyer! A Catholic devoid of love is not really a Christian. Now, those may seem like harsh words, but think of the words Jesus used. Think about this — the scribes and Pharisees are the only people Jesus came close to condemning. Jesus didn’t condemn sinners; he reached out to them in love. Jesus refused to condemn the woman taken in adultery; he simply admonished her to sin no more; Jesus forgave Peter for denying Him. Jesus would have forgiven Judas had Judas asked for forgiveness and mercy; instead, Judas despaired. And God will always forgive us because no sin is too big for God to forgive.
Jesus is cautioning us, through his words to the scribes and Pharisees, not to be more concerned about others transgressing laws of lesser importance while we continue to transgress graver laws ourselves. What was it that Jesus said? Don’t try to remove the speck from another’s eye, until you first remove the beam from your own eye. We must look at our motives for calling down others — is it love or is it wanting to be right? We must look at our motives for why we observe certain religious practices. If love, rather than legalism, is not a part of our religious practices, we’re simply blowing in the wind. If we want to imitate Jesus, love will be in the forefront of everything we do.