WHERE TO FOCUS

In life, it’s easier to focus on the small things rather than on the big things. The big things are more of a challenge, more difficult.

For example, it is easier for politicians to focus on passing another gun law as they try to end the shootings on the streets of our cities. It is far harder to address the bigger issue, namely, the reasons for such violent behavior. That would require looking at the breakdown of families, an absence of father figures in the lives of many children, a decline in the respect for human life, the media’s glorification of violence, the unravelling of a sense of community, the deterioration of moral standards and personal responsibility, and so on.

The same focus on the small things can happen in church as well. For example, it is easy for a parish staff to focus its attention on the Confirmation liturgy and the reception that will follow. It’s far harder to confront the bigger issue, namely, the fact that most of the young people who are confirmed will not be at Mass the following Sunday or the Sundays after that.

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the scribes for placing more focus on the little things than on the bigger, more important things.

The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why “his disciples ate their meals with unclean, unwashed hands.” They wanted to know why his followers were not observing the traditional purification rites associated with eating and other daily activities.

While not disparaging those external rituals, which were meant to remind people of God, Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that their focus and attention would be better placed on the bigger, more important things, namely the commandments of God. As Jesus told them, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Far more important than deciding whether people were ritually clean and worthy to participate in prayer, the scribes and Pharisees were to be focused on what was in the human heart.

Sin and evil do not originate from ritually unclean hands but from unclean hearts and minds. As Jesus said, “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”

In Sunday’s Second Reading (James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27), Saint James also stresses the importance of focusing on the bigger things.

He writes that religion involves not only listening to the word of God and participating in prayer, it also involves being “doers of the word and not hearers only.” It means doing the bigger things. “Religion that is pure and undefiled…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Focusing on only the little things in religion, such as external rituals, is easy to do. It demands little, perhaps as little as one hour per week for Sunday Mass, and it allows us to go on living as we choose the rest of the week.

Focusing on the bigger things, focusing on the commandments of God and on the conversion of heart demanded of those who truly hear and embrace the teaching and example of Jesus, is far harder and more challenging.

Jesus came to focus our attention on the big things – the big things that lead to eternal life!

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski