In the first reading, we read of Prophet Amos speaking against the social injustices practiced by the rich and the powerful. They were affluent and influential. But they were oppressing the poor and the widows. They were not paying their workers their just salaries, treating their slaves badly and taking advantage of the weak and vulnerable. Whilst they were living in luxury, they had no thought for the poor. That is why Amos exhorted them, “Seek good and not evil so that you may live, and that the Lord, God of hosts, may really be with you as you claim he is. Hate evil, love good, maintain justice at the city gate, and it may be that the Lord, God of hosts, will take pity on the remnant of Joseph.”
On the other hand, they were acting as if they were good and righteous people before God. They offered expensive sacrifices of fattened cattle for holocausts. Externally, they performed the rituals as required. They counted themselves among those who were observing the laws of Moses. They claimed that God was with them and they were with God. But their worship was not an expression of what was in their heart. The same judgement of Isaiah on the citizens of Judah applies also to the Northern Kingdom. “The Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with his people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” (Isa 29:13-14)
Indeed, we know of many supposedly good Catholics who give money to the Church and are active in Church ministries, but they treat their domestic helpers no better than slaves, tasking them to work from early morning until nightfall with little less than five to six hours of rest a day. They scold them and punish them, knowing that they are helpless and vulnerable because they need the work. Have we ever thought of them as fellow human beings, needing rest, proper food and time off for themselves? Social justice demands that we treat them well. Of course, sometimes the domestic helpers are lazy and appear to be irresponsible, but this could be due to miscommunication and cultural differences in getting something done. As good Catholic employers, we should treat each other as brothers and sisters working for and with each other. We should not be shouting and screaming at each other.
Hence, such external worship does not please the Lord. In fact, it only makes the Lord angry and sad. “I hate and despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals. When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations, and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle. Let me have no more din of your chanting, no more of your strumming on harps. But let justice flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream.”
The Lord is angry because we continue to break the commandments of social justice. Which parents would be happy if their children were to give them a great celebration whilst they are divided and fighting among themselves and neglecting the weaker ones? Jesus in the gospel said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Jn 14:23f) Indeed, a dinner or a gathering is truly a celebration only when it is a sincere celebration of love, especially for those whom we honour at the feast.
The Lord is sad even for those who are hypocritical because in the final analysis, they are cheating themselves. By not living the covenanted life, which is a life of harmony with their brothers and sisters, they divide the community into the haves and the have-nots. This brings about jealousy, hatred and inner division. When a country is divided, it would not be able to perform well on all fronts; and it would eventually be too weak to withstand the onslaughts from outside. The sad fact of life is that we “reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (Gal 6:7f)
But isn’t this the way we live our lives as well? I have come across so-called active Catholics living a double life. They are faith leaders, catechists, Extra-ordinary Communion Minister, choir members, etc, but the sad reality is that not all are seeking to live a life of holiness expressed in responsibility to their vocation, work and duties; and a life of charity expressed in compassion and forgiveness. I am not speaking of those who know that they are sinners and are seeking God’s grace to help them to live the gospel life. Rather, the Lord’s judgement is on those who are pretending to be good and holy when they do not make any real effort to change their lives, to treat their workers well and to show good examples of Christian love.
The question of justice must first begin in our own homes. Many of us take advantage of our parents and those who have charge of taking care of the home. Some do not contribute financially to the household expenses even though they have the means. They think only of spending on themselves and their indulgences, but they are indifferent to contributing to the household expenses. When we make use of others in the care of the household, whether it be our parents or siblings, financially or otherwise, we are dividing the family. Family disunity begins with resentment against each other, because we feel we are being taken advantage of by family members. Each must contribute within his or her means, in any way we can to the upkeep the family. If we cannot give money, at least we must help in the household chores.
The gospel reminds us that there is a real difference between faith and belief. The devils believed that Jesus was the Son of God. When they saw the Lord, “They stood there shouting, ‘What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before the time?’” Indeed, the devils knew in their head that Jesus was the Son of God. Yet they did not trust Him or worship Him. They had no intention of changing their relationship with God. Rather, they were so absorbed in their desire to destroy and kill that they asked the Lord to send them to the pigs. It was a demonstration of the power of evil and what the Evil One could do. “Now some distance away there was a large herd of pigs feeding, and the devils pleaded with Jesus, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of pigs.’ And he said to them, ‘Go then,’ and they came out and made for the pigs; and at that the whole herd charged down the cliff and into the lake and perished in the water.” It was their pride that prevented them from submitting to God’s authority.
Not only was there dichotomy between faith and belief in Satan and His demons, but it was so with the swineherds too. We read that “the swineherds ran off and made for the town, where they told the whole story, including what had happened to the demoniacs. At this the whole town set out to meet Jesus; and as soon as they saw him they implored him to leave the neighbourhood.” Why did they ask Jesus to leave even though they believed and acknowledged that Jesus had some supernatural powers and that He was probably sent by God? The fact is that the price of accepting the Lord was too high a price to pay! They were not ready to risk their income and livelihood. They put money before the lives of others. They were not excited that two of their fellowmen were delivered from the bondage of the Evil One. Their primary concern was about making money and a livelihood. Here again, we have another example of believing without trust.
Today, let us go beyond the practice of religion. Serving and loving God is to empower us to love our neighbours and enemies the way God is patient in forgiving and loving us. God does not need our worship. The responsorial psalm says, “I find no fault with your sacrifices, your offerings are always before me. I do not ask more bullocks from your farms, nor goats from among your herds. Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for I own the world and all it holds. Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? How can you recite my commandments and take my covenant on your lips, you who despise my law and throw my words to the winds?” So we must learn from the Northern Israelites not to allow our complacency, affluence and success to get into our heads. We will face the consequence of living an empty and unfulfilled life. Most of all, we will have many enemies who will keep us from being at peace with ourselves. Rather, we should turn belief into trust by loving Him with all our heart, soul, strength and our neighbours as ourselves. (cf Mk 12:28-34)