For those of you who go fishing for catfish, you know that, right out of the water, catfish meat tastes like the mud and scum the fish has been swimming in. To get that taste out, one needs to soak that fish – preferably alive – in fresh water. Willingly or not, the things around one are absorbed within…when we were young, Mom & Dad would listen to oldies on the radio in the car, and while we said we greatly disliked that kind of music, we could sing many of those songs verbatim. Willingly or not, the things around one are absorbed within.
We hear in the Gospel today: …the things that come out from within are what defile…From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly…All these evils come from within and they defile. From within comes the evil – that much is clear – but how does it get in there? As with that catfish swimming at the bottom of a lake or river, as with us in the car as kids, the things we ingest … music, movies, TV, newspapers, magazines … ingest with our eyes, ears, mind is what we’re likely to think about most often. It becomes our default way of thinking whether we know it or not, and our thinking leads to actions based on what we value as important. As the Lord said elsewhere: where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. Thus, there forms this connection between what we take in and what we will love. From this, we find our Lord, citing Isaiah, the prophet: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me…
On the flipside, however, good can be instilled in our hearts just like evil. What we most often ingest leads to what and how we most often think. Thinking affects our behavior based on what we think is important based on what we think is right and wrong, good and bad. Here, we find St. James encouraging us: Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. If we allow ourselves to be fed with those things that are true, good, and beautiful, especially as found in the Sacred Scriptures, the teachings of the Church, and also good literature and entertainment, because, All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. These things – true, good, and beautiful – will enrich our hearts, and transform our behavior. These will be seeds that set deep roots and grow up to bear fruit.
So, St. James continues, be doers of the word. Let that seed, planted in your hearts actually bear fruit. In this light, what a gift are the Commandments, Beatitudes, Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. We hear a bit of this in the responsorial psalm this morning: He who…walks blamelessly and does justice; who thinks the truth in his heart and slanders not with his tongue…who harms not his fellow man, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor…who lends not his money at usury and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Also, Pope Francis has decreed a World Day of Prayer for Creation, reminding us that we are called to care for creation. In his encyclical letter on creation, Pope Francis wrote: the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us. (LS, 216) Ultimately, this is a call to conversion that we might be good and grateful stewards of the many good gifts of our Heavenly Father to us, remembering that it’s not just for us, but for all His children, those present & those to come.
Let’s be clear about what’s at stake: it’s not just about being a nice person, a humanitarian, or a social worker. Moses ordered the Israelites to obey the Commandments given by God, …that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. For Israel, it was a physical place, the Promised Land, but it would foreshadow that true Promised Land of eternal life. Note well: their disobedience cost them dearly; it can cost us dearly as well. Refusing to follow God’s Will, a whole generation died in the desert. That 40 years wandering the desert was not for lack of directions or maps; it was a consequence of their choice to live their own way. Our eternal salvation is conditional upon how we live in this world, and acts come from within, from the heart and mind, fed by what we take in.
Moses further said to the Israelites: Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations. This observation of the Commandments was not just a matter for their own salvation. For the Israelites, their behavior was meant to be a model and example to others, that other nations might marvel at the wisdom and goodness of their society and lifestyle, which would lead them to seek to imitate the Israelites by joining in this obedience to the one, true God.
Even more so, we who have the fullness of the means of salvation who have been given the Good News of salvation for those near and far, we, too, are expected to be that model and example for others. Whatever your age, occupation, vocation, God has a plan for you; He wants you to be His missionary, not necessarily in some foreign land, but in your own neighborhood, so that others may be compelled by the wisdom and goodness of your life and be drawn to Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the challenge and invitation to us by our Lord this day and for this week is to look at what we’re ingesting, to make sure we’re filling our minds and hearts with goodness, truth, and beauty, that we might bear the fruit of a holy life.