Deut 4: 1-2, 6-8; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
If you want a snapshot of one of the underlying currents shaping up not only in the Church but also in our political system, look no further than our readings this morning. Whether we care to admit it or not, purity codes and rules are ingrained in all of us but when they’re heightened to the institutional level, it only magnifies the reality. We certainly see it in our two political parties where it’s all about being cleansed of anyone that thinks, believes, lives, or anything else differently than what is prescribed, and both are at fault for this. It leads to us deeming the other as evil. But the same is true in the Church. There are battle lines drawn that go much deeper than abuse and now it’s all playing out on the world stage. Yet, we never heed the warning that is presented to us through that very same Scripture.
Moses lays it out for Israel today in our first reading. There is a place for purity codes, rules, laws, ritual, however you want to describe it. For Israel it gave them a way to worship this God that has blessed them and continues to provide for them. Unfortunately our reading ends there today. It ends with the advantages to their fidelity to this God that always remains faithful to them. The next word, though, if the reading were to continue is “however…”. As much as Moses saw the value it in, it doesn’t come without warning. The reading goes on to warn them of creating idols of the codes, rules, rituals, that it becomes more about that than it does about God. It’s ingrained in us that way because we like to hold onto things, feel certain, and to know and all of this does it for us. However, the more we hold onto these human traditions, as Jesus says, the more burdensome they become and end up becoming an obstacle for moving forward. Its Moses’ warning to them and yet they don’t learn from their own history. They’d rather toss out history.
The result is that when we get to the time of Jesus centuries later, it becomes like our government and Church, bloated by what we’d call bureaucracy. Despite the warning from Moses about adding onto these traditions and the burden it would place on often the most disadvantaged, they did it anyway, which is where Jesus enters today. He’s not there to chastise the codes, the rituals, or anything else, but rather that they had done exactly what Moses warned them of. They made the laws, codes, rituals, into their own gods and then it misses the point. All they become are idols that allow them to cling and hold onto, creating a burden on others. The poor and marginalized often did not have the means to uphold these traditions and so of course they’d be attacked by the ruling class. Yet, as we’ve seen in these weeks, they too become exposed in their own hypocrisy as Jesus points out today. They miss the point. It becomes about something other than God and the change of heart and simply about all the externals. It’s about making ourselves look good before God with the hope of his love and to pour his grace on thee. Heck, some will go on and use Jesus against it all when that wasn’t his point in the first place. Jesus tries to lead them to live their lives from the inside out. The rituals and codes are to be lived inside out, rooted in love. When that become absent, well, we end up with what we have in our political system and our Church.
James, though, may say it the best. He tells us today that religion is most pure when it’s about caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. For James it’s about both, as it was for Jesus. For James, and for Jesus for that matter, it’s about a change of heart, a conversion of heart. If that’s missing from the equation, well, none of this really matters in the end anyway. It becomes more about us. More about holding on. More about the gods we create for ourselves. It becomes about certainty and knowing which only creates an unnecessary burden because we can’t live that way, none of us. Those that do and think they can, hypocrites as Jesus says today. It’s not about eliminating others, but rather finding a way to reconcile and bring the two halves together to create one, to move forward rather than this continuous running into a brick wall.
We have a real problem on our hands and again, we’d be a lot better off if we’d learn from our history, both as a country and as a Church. Yet, when all of this is so deeply ingrained, it only proves all the more that we’re missing the point. It’s about our ideologies. It’s about our team. Heck, it’s about winning and when it’s about that we all lose. All of us. And maybe we need to. It seemed to be the only way Israel learned despite the warning. It seemed to be the only way the early communities learned despite the warning. We too have been warned. There is nothing wrong with purity codes, rules, laws, rituals. It is but one half of the equation. It’s the substance that we seek and will nourish. It’s the substance that will change our hearts and open us up to greater depths of love. It is only allowing ourselves to fall into mystery that will do it for us, into the great unknown, despite our desire to cling to what we see and know and think we can be certain of in life. It’s our thinking more than anything and that’s all it is. As Moses reminds, however, there’s something more important.