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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deut. 4: 1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15: 2-5; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Holy Spirit Catholic Church: August 29, 2021

On the holiday of Simchat Torah (The Joy of the Torah), Jews celebrate the Torah
(what we call the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible), with song and dance.
That’s right, the Jews celebrate these Sacred Scriptures, these divine instructions,
with song and dance.

“Torah” is almost always translated as “law” in modern languages,
but I have never seen lawyers singing and dancing in the streets with their law books.
That alone should signal how poorly the word “law” translates the rich meaning of Torah,
how poorly the word “law” translates the gift of the foundational Scriptures of the Bible.

Of these five Scriptural books, three of them—Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy—include statutes, decrees, commandments, and above all exhortations.
This is what we hear from Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy today—an exhortation
to the people to live the Torah and so demonstrate their wisdom and intelligence.

The Torah gave structure to the communal life of the ancient Israelites,
how they were to live together in order to honor and love God.
So it touched on the “stuff” of every day life, with instructions and decrees about workdays and holidays, banking and harvesting, dietary concerns and religious purity,
and even the treatment of migrants.
Torah, as its root meaning in Hebrew implies, is a practical guide to holiness.

A central teaching of Torah is captured in today’s psalm response:
“The one who does justice (as in observing Torah) will live in the presence of the Lord.”
This justice is made concrete by the psalmist addressing money lending and bribery,
This justice is made concrete in Deuteronomy with the exhortation:
“there shall be no one of you in need” (15:4).

When Jesus is asked to summarize the Torah, he narrows all these commandments
and statutes and decrees into two: Love God and love neighbor.
But remember, in “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,”
Jesus places no limit on who one’s neighbor is.
For Jesus the neighbor most in need of love is the vulnerable or hurting person.

At the heart of doing justice in order to live in the presence of the Lord
is the command to care for the most vulnerable in society.
At the heart of the Law, at the very center of the observance of the Torah
is this constant exhortation to care for those most in need of care.
Thus, over and over again in the Torah we hear the command to care for orphans, widows, and the resident alien, a term better translated as foreigner.
This command is like a golden thread woven throughout the Torah.

This decree makes concrete what it means to love God and neighbor
because these groups of people represent those who are most in need of protection.
Orphans and widows and foreigners are those who have no power
and who are most often without the basic necessities of life.

St. James in his letter today echoes this theme from the Torah by stating:
“{R}eligion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction….” (1:27)

In our desire to live out the Torah, to live by the law of God which gives life,
we have to ask the question, “Who are the most vulnerable in our society today?”
In our desire to love God and love neighbor in the concrete circumstances of our daily life, we have to prayerfully ponder, “Who are the vulnerable ones who need our care?”
Definitely widows, orphans and migrants in our midst cry out for help and compassion, but during this pandemic there are other groups which command our attention and care.

As the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus fills up hospitals with people struggling to breathe, we know that children and those with compromised health conditions are the most vulnerable to becoming ill with Covid-19.
There is no approved vaccine for children under 12, and those who have
auto-immune diseases or whose health is compromised in other ways
can still be at risk even if they have received a vaccine.
Out of concern and care for the vulnerable ones, we need to do everything possible
to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Thus, for those who have not received the vaccine, I urge you to do so
to protect not only yourself but the vulnerable ones in our midst.
Obviously, if your personal physician has advised you not to receive the vaccine,
follow their advice, but otherwise make this small sacrifice for the good of others.
Practicing a religion which is undefiled means striving to love and care
for the most vulnerable ones among us.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus goes through a whole list of sins which come from within
that defile a person and their relationship to others and to God.
Starting with evil thoughts and ending with folly, this lists lays bare a number of sins which “infect” us, causing “dis-ease” in our relationship to self, others, and God.

That last one in the list, “folly”, is of particular concern at this time
and during this pandemic.
Folly results from mental laziness, from not trying to understand divine teachings.
Folly flows from thinking I alone know what’s best
and this self-absorption leads to foolish actions.

By refusing to take the vaccine which would curb the spread of this deadly infection,
some Catholics state they are doing so because they are following their conscience.
Now the Church has always taught the primacy of conscience,
but only the primacy of an informed conscience.

We are challenged to form our consciences by prolonged prayer and serious study.
Before making any important decision, we are to enter into an ongoing conversation
with God which is aided by the illumination of Sacred Scripture.

We are invited to study what the Church teaches, the actual documents of the Church,
not what some “Catholic” website claims the Church teaches.
The Church’s official position on the vaccine from the Pope, to your Archbishop,
to your pastor has been clear and consistent: that taking the vaccine is morally acceptable
and an act of love for our neighbor and the common good.

Formation of conscience requires not only knowledge of Church teaching on the matter
at hand, but also of the facts relevant to the issue being discerned.
Forming one’s conscience based on the facts becomes challenging amidst the noise
of social media when so many people are claiming their “opinions” to be “factual.”
Study and ponder what the professionals say about this mutating virus, and know
that their advice will change as they learn more about this new variant of the virus.

Consult your personal physician, our local health department, and the dedicated scientists at the Center for Disease Control for the best factual information, not what your friend or family member posts on Facebook.
If we want to prevent the infectious spread of “folly,”
we need to carefully and prudently form our conscience.

We live during a time of misguided individualism fueled by
an unhealthy self-centeredness.
We live during an age where a number of people think freedom means
doing whatever I want.

The Catholic understanding of freedom means the ability to do what is good,
which may not always coincide with what I want. Why?
In the Catholic moral tradition the individual is always treated
as part of a community and a network of relationships.

So, as Catholics we emphasize the principle of “what more can I do” for you
instead of “how little can I do.”
True freedom is the ability to do what is good, not only for me,
but for everyone.

We believe that where the Spirit of the Lord is present there is freedom, the freedom
to love more generously and to care for and protect the least of our sisters and brothers.

Fr. Joseph A. Jacobi