Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
"We have met the enemy... and he is us"
Tradition is a wonderful thing. Tradition provides continuity, a way of passing truths and practices down through the generations. Laws are also good things, they provide order and stability. Both tradition and law are good and important things, right up until the time we become enslaved to them. Then we have to re-examine what may be an unhealthy relationship between us as believers in Christ and the traditions and laws we follow. In today’s Gospel the Pharisees excoriate the followers of Jesus for failing to observe the tradition of the elders. They ate a meal without washing their hands. Now, hand washing is not a bad thing, it is indeed a good, common sense practice. The problem is when does hand washing go from a way of honoring God to a practice more important than God? The Gospel writer goes on to list other ways that the Jews practiced these traditions, various ritual cleansings of self and objects. Again, there is nothing wrong with them; indeed they are good sanitary practices. Yet these practices can be come so ritualized, so common, their original purpose, honoring God, is forgotten. Jesus turns on the Pharisees, letting them know that their rituals are empty when they fail to keep the meaning of the ritual in their hearts. They are merely lip service, meaningless gestures. The object you use may be clean, but is the intent with which you use it clean? Using a clean cup, or eating with clean hands does not make you clean within.
We can’t look at the Pharisees too haughtily, because we encounter the same difficulty. When do we become slaves to tradition, to ritual, making them empty and meaningless gestures? Does it really matter to God if I say the prayer at 11:01 and not 10:59? Does it really matter to God if my prayer is in English or Spanish or Greek or Latin or Sanskrit? When I read Scripture am I reading the words, or reading the Word? We are in danger of worshiping not God, but the tradition. We are in danger of worshipping not God, but the institution. The Scripture, the prayers, the traditions are a way to God, the Church is a way to God, they are not God. We can be so enamored of Scripture that we are worshipping the words, not the Word. We become our own worst enemy. Conversion of the heart comes from the grace of God working within. The traditions and laws can enhance that action of grace, they cannot replace it. Tradition is a wonderful thing. Tradition provides continuity, a way of passing truths and practices down through the generations. Laws are also good things, they provide order and stability. Good things when we use them to use them to lead us to God, not to replace God.
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Aug. 30, 2009