Worship and Works
From today's readings: "Seek good and not evil, that you may live; Then truly will the LORD, the God of hosts, be with you as you claim.... Why do you recite My statutes, and profess My covenant with your mouth, though you hate discipline and cast My words behind you?... When Jesus came to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met Him."
Am 5: 14-15. 21-24/ Ps 49(50): 7. 8-9. 10-11. 12-13. 16bc-17/ Mt 8: 28-34
Hypocrisy in religion is probably the worst kind, when one honors God with the lips, but spurns His rule as the guide for life. Now, we must admit that almost everyone is guilty of this to some degree, whenever our actions don't measure up to our baptismal promises to utterly reject Satan and sin. That's precisely why we need a Savior, who not only saved us in the past from sin, but continues to save us this day as we reach out to Him whenever we fall.
So, it's one thing to fail occasionally in living up to our faith, as long as one is striving mightily to follow Christ and embrace all His teachings, and continually calling out to God for divine assistance. But the complaint raised in the book of the prophet Amos is against systemic religious hypocrisy, against the insidious belief that as long as one performed the skeletal duty of divine worship, the everyday actions were less consequential. So, people would come to offer sacrifice, to observe religious feasts and rituals, to sing and praise God with music, and they presumptuously figured that all that should be enough for God, that He would be distracted by such offerings and so overlook habitual neglect of prayers, and everyday injustices, and the wicked schemes that lurked in their hearts even as they were making the offerings.
This systemic religious hypocrisy has not vanished - it can clearly be seen in some people's approach to the sacraments, for instance. Too many couples preparing for holy matrimony and ranks of parents who present their infants for baptism do not pray much together nor attend Church regularly, and they often have such a scanty familiarity with their faith that one can legitimately question how much of it they will be able to pass on to their children! The situation is all too often the same when children begin preparation for First Communion or Confirmation.
Now, without judging such parents' intentions (which may be quite noble, even if inadequate!), if they have no plan of deepening their everyday faith commitment, it's obvious that their approach to the sacraments is quite deficient! It is as if they concluded that after immunizations, no further concern was needed to insure their child's health, or as long as vitamins were set out, no other nourishment was required. The same sorry syndrome is also found among those who regularly receive the Eucharist without sacramental reconciliation, even after nonchalantly skipping Holydays of obligation, or living in sin, or embracing moral viewpoints incompatible with the faith, such as promiscuity or the support of abortion.
When such attitudes are stubbornly held, it can reach the point that the celebration of the sacraments instituted by Christ paradoxically and tragically becomes displeasing to God, as were the hypocritical sacrifices offered in the days of Amos. This does not contradict the Church's teaching that all the sacraments do guarantee the efficacious presence and work of the Lord, even when there exists substantial lack of preparation or intention - on the contrary, precisely because the sacraments do indeed warrant God's real presence, the desire to celebrate them worthily must logically include the practical commitment to recognize the absolute sovereignty of God's moral law. In other words, when we worship and seek the comfort of God in our lives, we have to conform our work and our lives according to Him!
So sacred scripture does not at all condemn the worship of sacrifice and religious ritual in itself, but only when the worship has degenerated into hypocrisy and is contradicted by wicked works. In our own day, we need to likewise preserve the integrity of the sacraments and all the other means God gives us for approaching Him, so that whenever and in whatever way we present to God ourselves and our worship and our works, "then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream!"