29 Aug 2021

Live-streamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 29 August 2021

English sci-fi writer, John Wyndham, is best known for novels like The Day of the Triffids and The Village of the Damned. But short stories were really his thing. In one, entitled The Wheel”,[1] a young boy playing in the yard discovers pulling his cart is easier if he attaches turning round bits of wood to it. Though he doesn’t know the word for it, he has literally reinvented the wheel. When he proudly shows his family, his mother screams and the others herd him into a shed with pitchforks.

That evening the boy’s grandfather explains to the bewildered boy that years ago, after a terrible apocalypse, their people turned against all technology and especially the wheel. But they are wrong, he says, for “No discovery is good or evil until men make it that way”. One day humanity will use the wheel in good ways again. The story ends with the grandfather taking the blame and being burnt at the stake. The boy looks away and says “I’ll remember, Grandad. I’ll remember. It’s only fear that’s evil.”

“Add nothing to what I command you and take nothing from it,” Moses tells the people today (Dt 4:1-8) …and within a few verses they are adding new regulations and ignoring old ones! By Jesus’ time the Jews counted 613 commandments.[2] The third commandment, for instance—to keep holy the Sabbath Day—became a whole series of regulations about what was work, what was rest and what were the exceptions. To begin with laws are made to protect people and principles. But then regulations are added to surround and protect those laws, to interpret and implement them. Mark calls these “the traditions of the elders” (Mk 7:1-23). And before anyone wags a finger at ancient Israel, we might note that The Laws of Australia site, that tracks substantive legislative and case law in this country, features over 40,000 legal propositions![3]

Fear or anxiety about breakdown of law and order, about loss of control—these bound the Scribes and Pharisees to rules even when they didn’t make sense, even when they undermined the very values they were supposed to protect. So too Wyndham’s technophobes: it was technology that supposedly killed people; now they are killing people out of hatred for technology. Grandpa agrees with Jesus: evil doesn’t come from outside forces so much as from within, from our thoughts and desires, intentions and choices. From there we can turn a thing as good as a wheel into car bombs, tanks, missile transports and the rest—sometimes with apocalyptic effects.

You can learn things about yourself in a crisis. One thing that has struck me during COVID is how very compliant Australians are. We’ve accepted restrictions on our movements, work, education, friendships, leisure and, of course, worship. We’ve resigned ourselves to being locked down and locked up.

Many of these restrictions are, of course, commonsense and necessary. Others are more contestable, but most of us comply for the sake of good order and because we trust our leaders and officials are doing their best. Some people are more sceptical, and that scepticism is fed when restrictions seem unwarranted or inconsistent. But the more fear is caused by COVID or whipped up by media, the more regulation we can expect. In our Gospel today the religious authorities scold Jesus for letting His disciples woof down their food without first observing the hygiene laws. In contemporary terms: they hadn’t used hand sanitizer. They were closer than 1.5m. No mask in sight as they waited for their kebabs. As for “the other observances handed down concerning cups and plates”, it seems they didn’t sort their takeaway coffee cups and glass drink bottles for recycling.

No wonder the authorities were anxious. If these disciples defy the regulations, many others may do likewise, whether out of imitation or disrespect for law. Before you know it, the whole edifice of regulation and custom may come tumbling down. And why should these guys be the exception? What about fairness to the others who keep the law? Aren’t the ritual and hygiene rules there for a purpose, to keep us and each other safe?

Jesus responds with yes and no. Yes God’s commandments must be obeyed and going through the motions, paying them lip service is not enough. No more pretending your man-made boundaries are themselves divine law. No more rigid and vindictive legalism that observes the letter of the law but not its purpose. Like when you condemned me for healing on Saturday or keeping the wrong company. Or when you gunned for my disciples for picking a few popcorns or not washing to the elbows. Stop being so anxious about splinters in other people’s eyes. Stop all the manufactured anxiety and outrage.

Go back to basics, Jesus teaches. Back to the ten commandments, behind the 613 in Jewish Law and 40,000 in Aussie Law. Back to a Torah of respect for God and the things of God, for people and the things of people. Like reverence for the name and worship of God; or for marriage, family and life itself; or for widows and orphans, women and children, refugees and employees; or for property and verity. From a bad heart, bad intentions come, from bad intentions, bad actions. Like sex without love, without commitment, outside of marriage. Like violence—physical or emotional—towards others. Like greed—for power and possessions. Like lying and slander and the rest. You know the commandments, you’ve known them from your mother’s knee: assess yourself by them before you go policing anyone’s else’s behaviour.

Last week I noted that modernity edits out inconvenient doctrines, leaving people hungry for truth but disempowered to find it. This week we confront another paradox: modernity tells us that morals are all matters of opinion; that nothing is objectively right; that we must learn to live and let live, and get comfortable with contradiction and uncertainty, power games and loyalty groups, abiding by the rules. But however fashionable relativism and nihilism may be, human beings just can’t live it.

For one thing, we need a moral compass if we are to choose to act reasonably rather than arbitrarily. For another, relativism demands abstinence from judgments, but human beings are inveterate finger-pointers; if they’ve edited out the divine law, some less worthy accounting standard will fill the void. Knowing the current slogans, speaking politically correctly, following what’s woke: there are plenty of opportunities for virtue-signalling, finger-wagging, dobbing. But what we need and deep down want is true goodness.

Today’s readings call us back to basics. Keep God’s commandments, says Moses. Care for widows and orphans, says James. Enough with all the manufactured anxiety and indignation, says Jesus, trust more in divine providence and human connection; cultivate hearts that reverence the very things laws are supposed to protect: God and friendship, life and health, truth and beauty, work and play. Before you go judging each other from the outside, examine yourself. Look inwards—with the eyes of Moses, James and Jesus—what do you see?

[1] John Wyndham, “The Wheel,” in Jizzle (London: Four Square, 1954), pp. 136-142

[2] James Madison University, “The 613 Mitzvot,” https://www.jmu.edu/dukehallgallery/exhibitions-past-2018-2019/the-613-mitzvot.shtml; Mendy Hecht, “The 613 Commandments (Mitzvot),” https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/756399/ jewish/The-613-Commandments-Mitzvot.htm

[3] https://legal.thomsonreuters.com.au/products/the-laws-of-australia/#:~:text=Stating%20the%20core%20principles%20of,features%20over%2040%2C000%20legal%20propositions.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, for the Solemn Mass of the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, being broadcast via livestreaming. We continue to pray for an end to the pandemic and for safety, wisdom and patience in the meantime.

We pray also for those fleeing the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. Today I launch the Archbishop’s Appeal for Afghan Refugees. The appeal will raise desperately needed funds and commit the Archdiocese to work through its agencies and partners to provide pastoral care, education, health and welfare to Afghan families arriving here in the coming weeks.

In our Epistle today James gives as examples of true religion “coming to the help of orphans and widows in need”. But in our Gospel we see the other direction people can take, the path of lust, greed, violence, envy, theft, deceit, slander, pride. So let us look inwards at our hearts and ask that our faith and action be purified by God.