This people, Jesus says, honours me with lip-service
Lip-service! We all know what that means. What a wonderful English phrase it is. The service of the lips and nothing more. Words and nothing more. Ritual and nothing more. Empty words and phrases. Worship that is worthless.
There is a way of arguing, of making a point, which by slipping in just one little word seeks to undermine and devalue the other point of view.
Let me explain.
There are several words which can be used, but they all amount to the same thing. The words are just, or mere, or only or perhaps some other word or phrase which means basically the same thing: this, and nothing more. Politicians and campaigners often use this way of speaking. You can read and here them every day in the newspapers, on television and radio.
In this way of arguing, an apology can be said to be 'just words', a great ceremony 'mere ritual', an important person 'just a man'. The little word plays a trick on the listener. It appears to make a statement of fact, whereas actually it is just an opinion: every apology is words - but just words? Every ceremony is ritual, but mere ritual? Every famous person is a human being, but just a man (or woman)?
This way of making a point is basically a form of trickery. It has a technical, latin, name reductio ad absurdum - reduced to the absurd. It is like saying that football is only 22 men chasing a pig's bladder round a field for 90 minutes. The statement is true, but it tells us nothing about why football is important to people. The word 'only' hides a real concern for understanding.
So it is possible to describe things in such a way to make them appear pointless or worthless, empty and foolish. Words and actions, if they are only words and actions, can be very empty. Lip-service. Worthless worship. It does not mean, of course, that the words themselves mean nothing, or that there is no point in ritual at all. Jesus is not condemning here formal worship or spoken prayer. But he is saying that if our hearts are far from God, then we are little more than hypocrites.
True worship, true service, living liturgy must always be filled with love from the heart. We know this from our very ordinary lives. 'Sorry' can be said grudgingly, out of duty, or with deep sorrow. 'Congratulations' can be uttered with joy, out of politeness or even with bitterness. A handshake can be warm and welcoming, or formal and cold. A kiss can express the depth of love, or be an act of betrayal. Because it is possible to give them emptiness, does not mean that they are always so, or are even meant to be.
And indeed, saying the words, following customs, observing the rituals can actually lead us into not only good habits, but good attitudes. By observing our traditions we may actually come first to understand, and then to mean what we say.
The challenge for us is for our words not to be mere utterances, but words which come from the heart. Lying is wrong, not only because it is meant to deceive, but because our words do not match our hearts. It is good to be polite, but it is better to love - even to love our enemies. Taking part in the Mass, in the sacraments is one thing, but to be open our hearts to God's grace is what it is really about.
There is one last thing I want to say. There has been a lot of fuss in the Catholic press in recent weeks about the bishops' dcecision to move some of the Holydays from Weekdays to Sundays, and a lot ot the complaints have talked about the obligation, about people no longer being willing to make sacrifices to go to Mass in the week, and so. Oh, this is all so negative! 'Love the Mass' wrote John Paul II. The obligation of the Mass is to lead us into love - but without love, we are nothing.