When I was growing up, I remember my mom telling me she wanted me to hear her, understand her, and then do what was asked of me–without complaint, without defiance, and without lip service. Lip service…isn’t that a funny phrase? I rarely, if ever, hear it anymore but it is exactly what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today, which is interesting because Webster’s dictionary said the term was first used in 1590, but Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah (742bc) when he admonished the Pharisees saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Isaiah might as well have said, “This people honors me with lip service.”
Merriam Webster defines lip service as, “an avowal of advocacy, adherence, or allegiance expressed in words but not backed by deeds.” To give lip service is to betray another. To say, “I’m with you, but not go.”
In the Marines, I was a shooter who did hostage rescue. When we entered a crisis site, the first man would stop at the door and yell, “Support!” When the second man arrived he would bump the first with his knee and say, “With you!” And we would together enter the crisis site. You never enter a room alone. You always wait for support. You wait for the bump and the “With you!” In the hundreds and hundreds of times that I received support, there was never a time when someone bumped me but did not enter into the crisis site with me. It was serious, and we lived that way.
Jesus is clearly frustrated with the religious leaders of his day, as Isaiah had been 800 years earlier. It had become far too common for people to pay lip service to God, that is, when God stood at the threshold of a crisis site, and called for support, they would give God the bump and say, “With you!” but fail to go in. I wonder if that still happens today. I wonder if I am guilty of lip service toward God. The issue that Jesus was dealing with was whether someone washed their hands before eating. Of course, this is very important, you should always wash your hands…but what if they’re not dirty…do you still have to wash them? Jesus and his disciples say no.
We might call what Jesus did observing the intent of the law, though maybe not following the letter of the law. Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees is not that they love the law and seek to observe it–that’s a good thing! It was that they loved the law more than the law-giver and His intent. They loved the words, “With you!” but they refused to go in. Washing hands wasn’t about washing their hands, it was about food safety and not getting sick! But they missed the whole point.
I think COVID has really challenged people, tested them maybe, in many ways to be people of real character. Government programs that were put in place to support sick people and families, and to help ensure public health are being abused. Many people don’t want to work! Employees who are not sick are pretending to be sick so they can get days off with pay. That’s lying. That is a sin. That leaves employers and customers, in my case children, without support. I fear that the Puritan work ethic, or what Catholic social justice refers to as the dignity of work, is all but gone, and a lot of people who say, “I love this country,” are sinfully taking advantage of its resources and support at the expense of others. That’s lip service not love.
Many people are not wearing their mask properly, if at all, are not staying home when they don’t feel well, sending their kids to school sick, not taking other quite normal precautions to mitigate the spread of disease, and not following guidelines from the pope, the local bishop, nor his pastors. We cannot both say, “With you!” to our bishop and the pope, but then disregard their directives. And we cannot say, “With you!” to our country and not go to work. And we cannot say, “With you!” to our God and not go to church without grave cause. Too many are missing the point–filled with “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly,” are defiled by human sin, and pay lip service to love of God and country. We can do better, and we must. As St. James said, “We must be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”