God’s word — aimed at the human heart — is patient but penetrating. Moses tells the people that the Lord gives them commandments to observe. “Observe them carefully, for thus you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’ For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon Him?’”
We might well ask ourselves, “Why are the laws of the Israelites superior to the laws of other nations?” The answer is simple. Observing the commandments of the Lord purifies the hearts of the Israelites, and their laws reflect God’s positive influence over the hearts of the Israelites.
That is why God chose a people, starting with one man, Abraham. He first formed Abraham’s heart by revealing His plan to make Abraham the father of descendants more numerous than the stars of the sky or the sands of the seashore.
Starting with one man, God was revealed Himself and His desires to foster a people His very own. He wanted to develop a people after His own heart. One of Abraham’s greatest descendants was King David. In spite of committing adultery and covering it up with murder, David repented profoundly, and God considered David as a man after His own heart.
David is believed to be the author of the Book of Psalms, the revealed word of God aimed at nurturing the human heart. One of those psalms is Psalm 51, “A Psalm of Repentance.” We would do well to read one Psalm a day and meditate on it.
This theme of the power of the word of God to transform the human heart is carried forth in the second reading for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. God willed “to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
Therefore James tells us: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” When we read and reflect on God’s word, godliness flows into our hearts to transform them and call them to wholeness in Jesus Christ.
It isn’t enough to read and reflect on the word of God, but we must actually live out what the word invites us to do. For example, it isn’t enough to read that God hears the cry of the poor, but God invites us to hear what He does and to join Him in listening to the cries of the poor.
He spells out what this means. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This changed behavior reflects the goodness of God to others. It enables others to see that God is dwelling in our midst, in the hearts of those who meditate on His laws and live them out in their lives.
In the Gospel, the Pharisees are very careful to make it appear that they are following out the Jewish laws meticulously, but only on the external level.
Jesus calls these people to task and says, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’”
Jesus “summoned the crowd again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, un-chastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.’”
Now we understand why James, a practitioner of this Gospel, told us to “Humbly welcome the word of God that has been planted in you and is able to save you.” James found out in his own life that meditating on the Gospels spelled death for the dark thoughts to which he had grown accustomed. He was most happy to welcome God’s word that put to death the dark thoughts that had haunted him and haunt everyone. James realized that meditating on God’s word spells relief from inner compulsions and begets in our hearts virtues that lift us up as well as others.
Medieval Europe experienced a marvelous transformation when it saw what was happening in the monasteries, when monks meditated on the word of God, spent time in prayer, allowing the Lord to lead them to repentance. More and more lay people began to follow their teachings. That’s why St. Benedict became the patron of Europe.
What worked for St. James and for St. Benedict also works for us. Why should we turn on ourselves if we find inside of ourselves unredeemed thoughts and feelings? Rather than turn against ourselves in self-condemnation, why not turn to the word of God and allow God to do what He enjoys doing, transforming the hearts of sinners with acceptance, repentance and love?
Why not be generous in simply telling God, “Whatever you do not like in me, feel free to bring it to my attention and love me out of my self-centered behavior. I would rather focus outwardly, reaching out to help those who do not know you. Teach me how to show them how much you love sinners like me.”