by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Nothing that enters from outside can defile a person; but the things that come from within are what defile.” Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
This Sunday’s gospel-reading is complemented by the reading we hear from the Letter of James, written by someone who had a direct, no-nonsense approach to religion: “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Come to the aid of orphans and widows when they need it, and don’t let yourself be contaminated by the world” (James 1, 27). That prompts me to begin this reflection with the story of a man who grew up in another Christian denomination in which those attending the Sunday service were expected to tick six boxes on the envelopes taken up at the Offertory collection:
__ Worship attended __ Bible brought __ Bible read daily
__ Sunday school lesson studied __ prayed daily __ gave an offering
Somebody had decided that these were the essential markers for belonging to that church congregation. There was no mention of the Beatitudes or the works of mercy.
Reflecting on his time in that Church community, the man who shared this story continued: “As a teenager, I brought my Bible every Sunday and did all the things prescribed on the offering envelope, which was my spiritual scorecard. I was assured that, as long as I was doing these six things, I would remain on good terms with God. I remember one Sunday when some visitors turned up in our church and came and sat down right in front of us. I turned and whispered to my father: ‘Do you see that? They don’t have Bibles!’ ‘Must be Presbyterians or, even, Catholics’, he whispered back.”
This same young person continued to explore his Bible and, eventually, after discovering the Letter of James, came to appreciate that the ultimate test of our religious faith is the measure of the care we extend to the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged around and among us. That discovery sustained him into adulthood and led him to volunteer for a ministry in Arizona that straddled the border between the United States and Mexico. There he met another man who had volunteered to be a missionary to Mexico, quite unaware that the Gospel had been alive in Mexico long before it had reached the United States. Undeterred, he stayed with the group he had joined and was assigned to give Bible classes and show the Jesus Film (1979) to children in a desperately poor Mexican village. The man continued his story to his new-found friend: “One day, a youngster who had taken a liking to me, took my hand and started to pull me down one of the village streets. I didn’t have enough Spanish to ask him what he wanted, and he had no English. But I went with him around a corner and tagged along till we stopped at a broken down, makeshift house. The boy pushed open a door and pointed inside. I realised he was introducing me to his mother, and his brothers and sisters – five or six small children scampering around on a dirt floor. Still holding onto the hand of the youngster who was leading me, I realised there and then what God was inviting me to do with my life.”
Over the next few weeks, we will hear more from the Letter of James as he repeatedly tells us that talk about faith without matching it with good works is emptiness. We are reminded of this in all kinds of different ways – from the story above to accounts of students taking gap-years to reach out to stricken Haitians, to a delightful Kenyan proverb: “When you pray, always remember to move your feet”.
When we Catholics encounter things like the “offering envelope” above, we can be inclined to look down on its designers with a sense of superiority. But let’s not forget that when people come together in groups, they invent all kinds of markers to indicate who belongs and who is excluded. For instance, if you don’t know the Liverpool Football Team song and wear the team scarf and beret, you just don’t rate as a fan or a true believer. Without those markers, giving voice to being a fan is simply hot air. And look at all the markers we Catholics have created at one time or another to signal our belonging, our commitment and, often, our superiority. If, in the past, you were not a member of “The Holy Name Society” or the “Legion of Mary” you risked being labelled as half-hearted. At the start of Lent, you would risk ridicule from fellow Catholics if you were not displaying a smudge of ashes on your forehead. And then there were scapulars of various colours and Miraculous Medals to serve as markers of extra devotion.
In today’s gospel-reading, we hear an account of a spat between Jesus and a group of Jerusalem Pharisees who had taken it upon themselves to do the job of “observance police”. They were busy looking at Jesus and his disciples to check for signs that they really belonged. It’s worth remembering, in this context, that the Jews of Jesus’ time had their markers of who really belonged and who didn’t. Those markers were a disproportionate attention to aspects of their customs and laws: circumcision, dietary laws, purification practices and observation of the Sabbath. The Jews were well aware that central to their faith was the shema. – the great command to love God and neighbour with all one’s mind, heart and strength. But to make sure they stood apart from the gentiles surrounding them, they adopted identity markers linked to dress, washing, diet and rigid Sabbath observance regarding travel and work. Agenda like these became both political and religious, and were promoted by hard-line Pharisees.
We Catholics don’t have to dig too deep to discover some of the markers, painted in large letters, that have characterised us. One of those has been an inordinate emphasis on sexual morality. Sadly, we have discovered that many who have spelt out the rules and regulations have failed to observe them themselves. Moreover, it was not long ago that some Catholics, even Church leaders, excluded fellow human beings on the ground of their sexual orientation. And we still exclude women from preaching, as if they don’t have insights to share with us as to how to live the Gospel with authenticity and creativity. And where do we stand on the efforts of some in our Church who want to exclude US President Biden from full participation in Eucharist?
It’s worth noting that Jesus, in his outburst against the Pharisees in today’s gospel-reading, does not condemn the practices of ritual cleansing or sabbath observance. He bypassed those regulations wherever he came across a greater need. He had consistently proclaimed that the kingdom of God was breaking into human history, into the history of his own Jewish people, in a new way; that the identity markers of genuine people of God will be a circumcised heart and a diet of compassion, mercy justice and love. We, in our time and place, need to acknowledge that we all have an inclination to be self-righteous, to look a little better than we really are. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen noted that when he observed that it’s very hard for all of us to stop being the prodigal son without becoming the elder brother. Now, there’s a tall order!