Discerning the Motives of the Heart

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary TIme

Discerning the Motives of the Heart

In the Letter of St. James we are exhorted thus: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” Whenever I read or hear this line from the Scriptures, my attention is immediately drawn to a line from Thomas of Celano’s first biography of St. Francis, chapter nine: “As for the other things he heard, he set about doing them with great care and reverence. For he was no deaf hearer of the Gospel; rather he committed everything he heard to his excellent memory and was careful to carry it out to the letter.” Another way of saying the same thing is the familiar adage: “Actions speak louder than words.”

While specific observable behaviors are good indications of what is going on inside a person, there is an inherent danger in paying too much attention to outward actions. For instance, in Psalm 15, our responsorial psalm for today, we are invited to consider ten specific behaviors that illustrate the commandment to love our neighbor. We are told that such a person walks without blame, doing what is right, speaks truth from the heart, does not slander a neighbor, does no harm to another, never defames a friend, disdains the wicked, honors those who fear the Lord, keeps an oath, levies no interest, and accepts no bribes. The psalmist cleverly outlines ten behaviors, following the pattern of exemplifying the Law of Moses in ten statements or commandments found in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. However, just because someone follows all these examples does not mean that the person keeps the commandment to love one’s neighbor perfectly.

The core of the Jewish tradition is found in the double commandment to love God and neighbor. As generation succeeds generation, many ancillary traditions were created to adapt this love of God and neighbor to new situations. In theory, these traditions are always secondary to the center, to the loving heart of the tradition itself. Today we hear the Pharisees and scribes complain because the apostles are not following the tradition to wash one’s hands and one’s dishware before eating, both practices which are immensely important in keeping good general health. Given our present situation and conversations about wearing masks and sanitizing our hands, this example will probably find many of us siding with the Pharisees and scribes today. I am not suggesting that we ignore these safety guidelines, and I do not believe that Jesus is either.

The motives for our behaviors have to come from the inside, from the heart. Why do we follow the guidelines for safety? Have the behaviors become an obsession? Have we placed more importance on the behavior and forgotten the core of the tradition; namely, love of neighbor?

Jesus, as are all spiritual teachers, is concerned about moral defilement, how evil comes into the world. This happens in the exact opposite way of ritual impurity. Defilement begins and develops in the human heart, in the cultivation of evil thoughts, intentions, and imaginings. People work from the inside out; and if their minds are full of the various things that Jesus lists today, these become the drivers of our actions. Jesus’ attention is on the internal world and the moral havoc it unleashes. He is intent on finding the drivers of immoral behavior.

It is important, therefore, that we realize that there is more going on within you and me than we know. We must constantly examine our hearts and the motives we find therein to determine whether we are observing all the statutes and decrees which we have been taught. Moses claimed that the nation of Israel would draw others to God by observing God’s commandments and that Israel itself would be considered a great nation by the other nations of the world. Ultimately, this is because God’s law is about justice and compassion, about mercy and kindness, about concern for the welfare of others. This motive is surely still the underlying principle of any great nation and people.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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