In today’s Gospel Jesus challenges the Pharisees and scribes for treating their religious traditions as more important than the law of God. “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” The human traditions they so rigidly observed had become quite numerous and burdensome, and the practice of religion itself had taken on a life of its own, far removed from the original purpose of the laws God had given through Moses.
In a passage that reveals how Moses regarded the law, today’s reading from Deuteronomy presents him speaking to the people of Israel. He clearly does not consider the law as a burden. Rather it is a treasure, a precious guide, clear proof of God’s goodness and of his closeness to them. The following of the law is evidence of “wisdom and intelligence,” not scrupulosity and hypocrisy. Moses warned the people not to tamper with the wise statutes and just decrees that God had given: “…you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” Sadly, over the years the Pharisees did not follow this warning but instead kept adding rules, compiling a complex list that became known and honored as “the tradition of the elders.”
The multiplication of laws did not result in greater holiness or obedience. So Jesus gives the Pharisees a stern correction: “Well did Isaiah prophecy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’” Then he proceeds to explain this distinction between the “lips” and the “heart,” between the level of external observances and that of the interior life. The Pharisees had accused the disciples of being “unclean” because of their failure to follow the prescribed purification rituals. Jesus shifts the focus to the things that really make us unclean: “the things that come out from within are what defile.”
This teaching gives us pause to reflect on what traditions may have taken on a life of their own in our own spiritual life and in the religious habits of our families. Have we taken on a devotion or practice, perhaps during Lent or when we faced a particular need, that has now become rigid and burdensome? Is it producing the fruit for which it was originally intended? As we reflect on our “human traditions,” guided with insight from the Holy Spirit, we may see some that have gone astray.
The second reading gives us wise advice to ensure that the traditions we practice produce good fruit. St. James tells us: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” We are not to look to external practices alone, as if these can save us, or as if we can save ourselves by doing them. Rather we look to the One who has planted his own word “the word of truth,” in our hearts. As we allow the Lord to purify us from within, we grow in holiness and virtue. With his grace we can “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” While external observances are not enough, James is careful to prevent us from making the opposite mistake, that of thinking that listening alone is enough. He tells us to listen and put what God tells us into practice. As an example of pure and undefiled religion, James tells us to take care of orphans and widows, and to keep ourselves “unstained by the world.”
In this week’s Spiritual Reflection, Pope Francis tells us to “Pay heed! … Jesus wants to caution us too, today, against the belief that outward observance of the law is enough to make us good Christians… We all know, in our communities, in our parishes, in our neighborhoods, how much harm and scandal is done to the Church by those people who say they are deeply Catholic and often go to Church, but who then neglect their family in daily life, speak badly of others and so on. This is what Jesus condemns because this is a counter-witness to Christianity.”
A “counter-witness to Christianity”! This is the last thing the world of today needs! We have already had too much of “the evils that come from within” – the “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit” and all the rest. Today’s readings move us to reflect on what is going on within us and to consider what sort of Christian witness we are giving to the world. We ask God to purify our thoughts, attitudes, and habits. Let us humbly welcome the word that has been planted in us.
When do my religious practices become burdensome or rigid? Do I focus on external rituals or my interior disposition? How can I welcome the transforming word of Christ?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.