We are reaching the business end of the football season and interestingly both the NRL and the AFL have a very top heavy ladder with several teams vying for the top four places. Whatever teams make it to the finals, one cannot help but marvel at the skill, enthusiasm, the sheer determination of the athletes who have made it to that level of competition. The same can be said for Usain Bolt who this weekend is jumping from sprinting to playing soccer for the Central Coast Mariners. Not to mention the Sunshine Coast Lightning winning the National Netball League. We won’t mention the Wallabies after last weekend’s Bledsoe Cup loss to the All Blacks! While all of us can day-dream and imagine standing on a dais collecting a gold medal or winning a grand final, we know in reality that, to be the best in any field, requires sacrifices, focus and unrelenting practice.
What is true for top sports men and women is also true for anyone who wants to get the best out of themselves – there are rules that have to be followed, real sacrifices that need to be made, discipline incorporated into the timetable of daily life. The simple truth is that if we fail to follow the rules and give ourselves over to whatever makes us feel good we will end up being slaves to our own feelings. In biblical language, that slavery is called hell – damning ourselves for what we could have done but did not do, for what we could have had but now do not have.
The first five books of the Old Testament are also called the Torah and they contain the laws written down by Moses. The ancient Israelites cherished and revered the Law of God, the Torah. Put simply, they believed that if a person incorporated the laws and regulations handed down to them in the Torah, they would be given the strength and power to pass through life free of this world's seductions, distractions, and diversions… and so find their way to God.
The problem with the Torah, as with so much of life, is that we can easily slip into a mere external observance of the rules and uncritically incorporate discipline into our routine without understanding its purpose or intention. These are the rules and regulations that are used by others to stifle our potential; these are the disciplines that we quote to choke the possibilities in others.
That is why I think that all too often laws are seen from the wrong perspective. They are seen as restricting us rather than liberating us. To be sure, they restrict and control our urges, drives and feelings. To be sure, they keep us from doing what we feel like doing when we feel like doing it. But that is not their chief purpose. The chief purpose of law is to free us to be focused, to keep us centred on what we can do in order to live wholesome and healthy lives, not just for ourselves but for the sake of helping and building up others.
I know from my own experience that if I am made to follow laws and rules and regulations because I am made to, or just for the sake of following them, then all it does is lead to defiant compliance. And I also know from bitter experience that once defiance enters into the equation I am only a step away from breaking away from discipline, becoming once again a slave to my own self.
As we hear in this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus faced the scribes and Pharisees who were preoccupied with the enforcing of rules and regulations. They saw only the external letter of the law and lost the vision of its inner spirit. That is probably why Jesus called them hypocrites. It comes to a head when they demand that everyone comply with the letter of the law.
What Jesus wants to reinforce to those who will listen is found in the last lines of today’s Gospel: He called the people to him again and said, 'Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a person from outside can make them unclean; it is the things that come out of a person that make them unclean. For it is from within, from people's hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within and make a person unclean.'
In a modern culture that has become self-indulgent, self-gratifying, and self-justifying the exploits of the top sports men and women remind us of what sacrifice, focus and unrelenting practice can achieve. If owned and incorporated into the timetable of our daily life, the law of God can have the same effect. More than that, once owned, these laws give us freedom and lead us to what we dream we want to be, and for what Jesus Christ died for us to have.
Fr Peter Brannelly, Dean