by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves. Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it…” James 1, 17-22, 27

“This people honours me only with lip-service…” Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s gospel reading highlights the irony of keeping our hands ritually clean while being up to our elbows in corruption. The action starts following a brief outline of what was involved in Jewish purification rituals (probably given by Mark for the benefit of the Gentiles in his community). The question put by the scribes and Pharisees is anything but a search for information. It is actually an accusation. It succeeds only in provoking Jesus into an angry outburst, full of venom and sarcasm directed at his would-be inquisitors: “Isaiah must have had you in mind when he said: ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me…’”

In reading today’s gospel, it’s important to distinguish between what Jesus has to say and the comments that Mark makes as the narrator. As one who does not seem to be particularly health conscious, Mark seems to criticise the Jews for being obsessed with cleaning: “There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them to keep, concerning the washing of cups, and pots and bronze dishes” (Mark 7, 4). Jesus, however, makes the point that obedience to God’s commandments takes priority over human traditions and rules: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7, 8).

However, if we dare to look closely at this story in Mark, we will see that it’s not really about watering down God’s commandment with human traditions and customs. Rather, it’s about the irony of resorting to moral posturing to sidestep the commandments completely. And that, in a word, is hypocrisy. It can be summed up in the person who gets a Distinction in the Ethics or Moral Theology exam and swindles his way through his life as a businessman. The rhetoric is impeccable but the practice is totally corrupt. So, what does it look like in our contemporary world? We see it in public life when so-called, committed, Christian politicians trade-in their wives and families for someone more attractive; when cruelty to boat people is carried out in the name of “national security”; when torture of suspect terrorists is labelled by officialdom as “lawful, skilful and entirely honourable”; when a head of state describes the criticism of reputable journalists as “recklessness cloaked in righteousness”. All that helps me to understand why Jesus flew into a rage.

The Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the very word “religion” is derived from the Latin word religare, to bind. Religion, then, is a human construct through which we are bound or linked to God. Today’s second reading from James and the responsorial psalm (Psalm 14) give us some insights into the meaning of religion and the message contained in the gospel. The psalmist poses a question as to what constitutes true religion, and then answers it:

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and act with justice,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their brothers and sisters,
nor cast a slur on their neighbours.

James goes further and adds: “Nobody who fails to keep a right rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is mere self-deception; that person’s religion is worthless. Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world (James 1, 26-27)

Yet, slander, deception, lies, fake news and public accusations are the currency of our day. Public figures who profess to be Christians are expert at labelling, criticising and accusing, but almost incapable of listening to opponents or hearing how God works and speaks through others. Yet James reminds us that genuine religion is a God-given gift – a gift, not an obligation and not a measuring rod. Genuine religion is surely meant to reflect God’s love, goodness and light to us and our world. Yet, we have become mesmerised by the rhetoric of those who want to see anyone whose skin colour, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation is different as a threat and someone to scapegoat. Attacks on such vulnerable people are now commonplace. And the voices of many of us who call ourselves Christian are silent.

In the gospel, Jesus could not be clearer when he points out that who we are, what we believe and how we respond to everyday crises and challenges have their origin in our hearts, in the place deep within us where God dwells. Similarly, the meanness and hurts we inflict on others, the prejudices we act on and the silence and neglect we slip into in the face of injustice also have their origins in our hearts. Jesus challenges us to take time to look into the depths of our hearts where we will discover what we really believe, what we are passionate about, and how we might best use the gifts and talents with which God has blessed us.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will be able to point to times in our lives when we have been ruled by ritual, custom, legalism and nit-picking. There have been times when being church has been replaced by going to church out of obligation or fear. There have been times when “going to communion” has been a substitute for being eucharist for others, when “going to Mass” has had little to do with identifying with Jesus. Today’s gospel is an unambiguous invitation to break free of mindless religious practice and embrace the kind of compassion, care and acceptance that Jesus preached and lived.

The essence of today’s gospel might best be encapsulated in something that caught my attention some time ago. I have to admit that I have forgotten where exactly I read it: “If there have been times when you thought you were a Pharisee, then you were probably wrong. However, if you now believe you are not a Pharisee, then be wary!”