In the first reading, the people of Israel were reprimanded for their insincerity in observing the commands of the Lord. In order to understand the context of today’s first reading from Jeremiah, we need to read the preceding verses that were left out of today’s text. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jer 7:21f) Indeed, they pretended to offer sacrifice to the Lord but this was not the sacrifice that the Lord wanted. The offering of sacrifices was to remind the people of their sins and through the sacrifices, the people were called to repentance. God does not need us to offer holocausts to Him. “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds. For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps 50:8-13)
What God wants from us is to obey His commandments. “These were my orders: Listen to my voice, then I will be your God and you shall be my people.” The tragedy is that like Israel, we never listen to the voice of God. As the Lord lamented, “But they did not listen, they did not pay attention; they followed the dictates of their own evil hearts, refused to face me, and turned their backs on me from the day your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until today, day after day I have persistently sent you all my servants the prophets. But they have not listened to me, have not paid attention; they have grown stubborn and behaved worse than their ancestors.” Indeed, today, we are asked to examine ourselves sincerely whether we have truly been faithful to the commandments of the Lord.
How have we been insincere in obeying the commands of the Lord? This insincerity is seen in the way, we twist and turn the scriptures to suit our preferences and our desires. Like the Devil, we can also quote the scriptures to justify our doctrinal and moral positions. Instead of listening to the voice of the Lord, we listen to the people instead. We try to satisfy what the world desires in the same way Aaron gave in to the people’s desire by molding the golden calf for worship. (cf Ex 32:21-24) We are no longer strong enough to uphold the truth of the Word of God. Like the Jews in today’s gospel who accused Jesus of casting out the devils through Beelzebul, the prince of devils. Indeed, we can distort the truth in such a way as to justify our egotism and our selfish interests.
This is why the world we live in today is such a complex and confused world. We no longer know where the truth is to be found. What we hold to be absolute truths and unquestionable doctrines are being challenged by the world, including religious leaders. The gloomy state of the world today is because leaders themselves are confused, especially religious leaders. It is a sad reality that religions have lost its moral ground in steering the conscience and morality of our people and our secular leaders. If religious leaders are not too sure of what is true anymore, or afraid to be firm in their moral teachings, then we have abandoned our roles as shepherds of our people. If this is true, we should not be surprised that our secular leaders have given up their position as the moral spokesperson for the nation as well. So morality today is decided by consensus and not by moral principles. Indeed, if we examine the changing positions of religious leaders with regard to those doctrines which were once held with tenacity but eventually given way to the cries of the people for change, then we wonder how sincere we are in observing the commands of the Lord. Have religious leaders compromised the truth so that religion could be more acceptable to the people?
We just have to examine how some of these issues have changed gradually but radically.
Catholics once held that contraceptives as taught in the Encyclical Humane Vitae is intrinsically wrong. The Church had the foresight to see that once contraceptives is permitted, it will lead to the separation of sex from love and eventually, to sexual promiscuity. The truth is, how many Catholics still uphold this doctrine and practise it? The world certainly does not believe in it. Again, the question is, how sincere we are in obeying the Word of God?
What about abortion? It was considered the most serious sin against the dignity of human life. Again, this is not accepted by the world and laws have been enacted to permit abortion. Today, even a good number of our Catholics go for abortion when they are not ready to raise a child. When it comes to personal interests and convenience, the individual rights come before others. Again we need to ask the question, “Are we sincere in obeying the Word of God?”
With regard to the question of divorce, it is even more ironical. King Henry VIII would not have broken away from the Catholic Church if the annulment of his marriage to Catherine went through. And to think that millions had suffered in silence because the Church was faithful to the command of the Lord on the indissolubility of marriage. But today, it is much easier to get an annulment, and permission is even given to divorced couples who have remarried to receive the sacraments. Again we need to ask ourselves, “Are we sincere in obeying the Word of God?”
In those days, same sex union was unthinkable. It was then a crime and could even be punished by death. Today, it is becoming universally accepted and even written into law. Clearly, the scriptures condemn homosexuality, but theologians have found a way to justify that same sex marriage is not against the Word of God. Governments are giving in to the people. In our world, society dictates the policies of the government and the government has become merely a servant and an executor; no longer a leader. This is true even of the Church as well. Are we sincere in obeying the Word of God?
The latest absurdity in our times is the promotion of euthanasia, which is slowing being legalized in many countries. At one time, life was considered sacred but now it is just a thing that can be disposed of when it is useless. Euthanasia used to be a crime punishable by death and seen as murder, but today it is being promoted as mercy killing. Doctors used to take the Hippocratic Oath, undertaking that “I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them. I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.” But this is no longer held. Even if doctors take the Oath, this is now radically modified. So, we change the Word of God to suit our needs!
The truth is that we lack a strong man to lead the world. Jesus in the gospel made it clear, “So long as a strong man fully armed guards his own palace, his goods are undisturbed; but when someone stronger than he is attacks and defeats him, the stronger man takes away all the weapons he relied on and shares out his spoil.” We need to pray for good leaders to guide the nations on earth. So long as our leaders are weak, lacking courage and integrity, lacking wisdom and prudence, then humanity is moving towards self-destruction. Indeed, the truth must be told. Jesus warns us in no uncertain terms, “He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters.” If we do not stand by the Lord and His word, we will be divided and scattered, which is what is happening to the world. This world is a fragile place to live in. We live in superficial peace and unity. Unless we come back to the Lord, “the rock who saves us”, we cannot stand for long. Jesus is our rock and our strongman. “O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah!”
In the final analysis, how do we know that we are living in the truth and not simply making false compromises? History will be our judge. We just have to see how current policies, whether on divorce or remarriage, same-sex union, abortion or euthanasia, will affect humanity in the future. We are too short-sighted. The situation we are now in is precisely because we have tried to tamper with nature and we are suffering the backlash of nature, a promiscuous society, dysfunctional families, aging population, etc. What will be the outcome of those who legalize same-sex union and euthanasia? We are walking down the slippery path of no return. If we do not listen to His voice, humanity will destroy itself eventually. But if we “follow right to the end the way that I mark out for you, and you will prosper.”