by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the Idente Missionaries.
Madrid, August 29, 2021. | XXII Sunday in Ordinary Time
Book of Deuteronomy 4: 1-2.6-8; James 1: 17-18.21b-22.27; Saint Mark 7: 1-8.14-15.21-23.
As is well known, philosophy, for Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, is not doctrine; Philosophy is an activity, it is a mode of life. As activity, it cannot be fully stated or expounded. Ultimately, it can only be displayed. Statements lose their meaning once detached from the activity of enunciating them. Philosophy ‘in no way can be put in words like other studies’ (Letter VII). It can only be engaged in.
Engineers also think that way. I remember that the motto of one of the schools of the Polytechnic University of Madrid is To know is to do. We could give more examples from all periods and areas of human life, but all of them point to a reality that Jesus teaches vigorously today in the Gospel: Put the Word into practice and do not be content merely to hear it, so that you deceive yourselves.
This goes hand in hand with another key piece of today’s Readings: Nothing that enters one from outside can defile the person.
It is important to look at the positive implications of this affirmation. Not only is it saying that contact with the world and our neighbors does not defile us, but that it is always a new and challenging occasion to grow the kingdom in the eyes of God and our fellow men. In this sense, Jesus warns us against traditions, not because they are negative in themselves, but because they can be an obstacle to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, if we cling to them, which is easier than we might think.
To begin in a light-hearted way, I would like to illustrate this with a somewhat funny story:
A new husband watched curiously as his bride prepared to place a ham in the oven. Before putting it in to cook, she took a knife and carefully trimmed off both ends of the ham. The husband asked, Why did you do that? I’m not an expert, but I don’t think I ever saw anyone cut off both ends of the ham before cooking it. The wife answered, You know, I don’t really know. I never cooked a ham before, but that’s the way my mother always did it. Her curiosity aroused, she telephoned her mother and asked her why she always cut off both ends of a ham before she cooked it. Now that you mention it, I don’t know, dear, her mother replied. That’s just the way your grandmother always did it. Other than that, I honestly don ‘t have a clue. Determined now to unravel this mystery, the young bride then telephoned her grandmother and asked her why she always cut off both ends of the ham before she cooked it.
Well, sweetheart, her grandmother said, the first oven we owned wasn’t big enough to put a whole ham in, so I had to cut the ends off to make it fit. After that, I guess it just became a habit!
Jesus and his family were very respectful of religious and civil rituals, and when we speak of this, the Presentation in the Temple immediately comes to mind. Rituals help to structure our lives. We perform group rituals that demarcate significant social events and milestones such as singing at birthday parties, celebrating at weddings, and mourning together at funerals. Individuals also have personalized rituals that help to organize their days, such as getting that morning cup of coffee, or taking a deep breath before starting a speech.
Rituals can offer numerous psychological advantages such as giving us a sense of control or reducing anxiety.
But we are interested, above all, in the spiritual and religious dimension. Even good deeds (e.g. charitable works) can become a kind of sport, hobby or source of personal satisfaction, feeding our desire for recognition or to feel better than others. This illustrates the danger of habits: if we lose our motivation, if we stop looking at the deep meaning of all the actions of a disciple of Christ, that is, giving glory to God, we fall into the hypocrisy that Christ mentions today, that is, putting a distance between our words and our heart. This is reflected in our Examination of Perfection in the Formulative Union, which refers to our ability to NOT separate thoughts, desires and intentions, essentially seeking only the glory of God in all things.
We know what the devastating result of the opposite attitude is: scandal. Givers of scandal to others, says St. Bernard, are destroyers of unity and enemies of peace. Moreover, one person’s fall scares off many others and makes them lukewarm in advancing spiritually.
I always remember that one of the most brilliant minds of the last century was asked why he did not follow the religion of his family, which he knew perfectly. His answer was blunt: Because I don’t see any difference between them and other people. Probably, it was a question of the scandal of mediocrity.
The rabbis and the honest Israelites knew that all religious practices should be called for the conversion of heart. The monks of Qumran, who also made liberal use of purification rituals, taught: We cannot sanctify or purify ourselves in lakes and rivers nor purify ourselves by washing with any water. We will remain impure as long as the commandments of God are despised.
In a very compact form, the golden rule for not mistaking or defiling the true purpose of our actions, be they habits or new tasks, is given to us in today’s Second Reading: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Not to be contaminated by “the world” is a way of speaking globally of Attachment to the things of the world and lack of Abnegation. A clear symptom of Attachment or non-Abnegation is when I try to keep something, or someone to myself, when I somehow ignore God and my neighbor in a thought, word, action, omission or desire.
Jesus not only confirms the Jewish traditions and Law, but also brings them to their perfection, as the king of Israel, on the day of his coronation, received a copy of the Torah, to meditate on it every day of his life, without introducing changes or additions to take advantage of it (Dt 17:18-20). This was oriented to what Jesus repeats today: not to live a religion of the lips, but of the heart, being aware that none of us can stop asking God for a moment about his will.
Some of us may think that today’s Readings do not affect us much, since we do not spend as much time on the Liturgy and our modern religious celebrations tend to be shorter and shorter. Even many practices prescribed by the Church are forgotten or considered irrelevant to many Catholics. But this is not the case. It is a universal teaching for all times. Therefore, if we are attentive and sincere, we will continually notice within ourselves how the Holy Spirit makes us feel what in the mystical experience we call Segregation.
Segregation is the clear feeling that there is and always will be in me a division, an opposition between soul and spirit. Unity will never be complete. This impression pushes me to distrust myself and, of course, to accept whatever God wants to provide.
In any case, it should not be forgotten that, on too many occasions, the formalities, the details of the Liturgy or its interpretation, cause divisions among us today.
In particular, today’s Gospel refers to the purifications as ” human traditions”. Purification is an act of the Holy Spirit to which we must respond with the same perseverance with which He exercises it in us. Today, as society is becoming more and more aware of the problems of environmental pollution, we must take advantage of this sensitivity to better understand the scope of true purification: to avoid what is foreign “to the environment” which is the kingdom of heaven, not to let “what comes out of the heart” deteriorate our relationship with God and our neighbor.
The Pharisees and the scribes in today’s Gospel are nit-picking the actions of the disciples. They are finding fault with what they do. And by the standards of the day they were indeed breaking the Jewish law. But Jesus turns on them and aptly points out that what is truly wrong are those things that come from within a person. And nothing could be worse from within ourselves than taking cheap shots at everyone else while never bothering to look at ourselves.
What we speak about here is the temptation we face to pick at the behavior of others because it differs from our own. We often forget that the Gospel is not a tool by which we measure the actions of others. Rather, the Gospel is a mirror, a true Spirit, by which we examine ourselves. It takes courage to look in the mirror and even greater courage to change what we see. But unless we are willing to realize that the only person we can change is ourselves and unless we are willing to start making those changes, that we end up wasting our lives. We look out at others rather than looking in at ourselves. And the truth is that when we look at others, for various reasons we pay great attention to their weaknesses. And when we do that we waste our lives and hardly contribute to the building up of the reign of God in our world.
On one occasion, a young man of 24 was traveling with his father on a train. And, looking out of the window, he exclaimed: Oh, look dad, the trees are running backwards. Soon after, he said: Look dad, the clouds are following us.
A young couple, unable to stand it any longer, said to the father: Sir, you should take your son to a good doctor. The father smiled and said: I already did, we just left the hospital. My son was blind from birth. He could not see and today he can see for the first time.
We judge without knowing people’s history. But, what is worse, without knowing what God is working in their hearts. That was the case with the Pharisees and, more often than we think, it can happen to us.