TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2018)
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In the monologue which begins the great American musical Fiddler On The Roof, Tevye, the main character, explains how it is that one can keep his balance while “fiddling on a roof,” his phrase for living one’s daily life. Tevye states:
“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here… we have traditions for everything: how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you – I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
A good Jew was steeped in the tradition of their ancestors. That tradition especially included the covenant entered into with Moses, a covenant we so often simply refer to as the Ten Commandments. It embraced the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. It embraced the Talmud, the 613 precepts/commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah: 248 positive commandments (what a good Jew was supposed to do), and 365 negative commandments (what a good Jew did not do). It is this tradition which is behind our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses, in a farewell discourse, encourages the people to remain faithful to the tradition, for by doing so “you will give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.” Further, they were not to “add to” or “subtract from” the “commandments of the Lord.” It was this tradition that helped them to define themselves as a “chosen people,” and remind them of how “close” they were to their God. It was this tradition which was meant to assist them, like Tevye, to keep their balance in a world which so often wanted to knock them off balance.
As Christians, we, too, have a tradition, enshrined in the Christian Testament and proclaimed regularly in our celebrations of the Eucharist. That Scripture portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and His teaching is meant to show us the Law’s true meaning and purpose. Like the Jewish people, we are meant to be transformed, changed for the better by our tradition, so that we might be examples to those around us, giving evidence of our “wisdom and intelligence,” our “closeness” to the God we worship. The only way that can happen says the Letter of James from our tradition, is to “be doers of the word and not hearers only,” for to be “hearers only” would be a “delusion.”
As important as tradition is to God-fearing people, it is fraught with challenge, as our gospel reading from Mark points out. From the virtual beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus finds Himself at odds with the religious leaders of His day, for they were not minding the “balance” that was so important to Tevye, and they frequently became believers who honored God “with their lips, but their hearts were far from God.” There is a danger in all religions of confusing mere externals with the important tenets of faith, of confusing “doctrine” with merely “human precepts.” Numerous times in the gospels Jesus challenges the Pharisees and Scribes because they demonstrate that they are doing nothing but lip service. Jesus speaks to the religious authorities in today’s gospel and tells them that they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” Their religious lives had become imbalanced, and what was intended to put them in touch with the Holy (in this case purification rituals), actually prevented them from encountering the holiest of holies, God’s only Son, Jesus. While our Catholic religion may, in fact, be faith based, it’s ritual dimension may oftentimes cause us to be confused about what constitutes true holiness. Our sacraments, rituals, and personal acts of piety might be able to lead us to what is holy, but they are not capable of making us holy by their mere execution.
Jesus makes it clear to the crowd that it’s not dung and dust on one’s hands that makes one defiled, but it’s what comes from within their hearts that makes a person unholy: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” While the list is large, I’m sure Jesus did not want us to think it was exhaustive! Speaking specifically about the numerous dietary regulations that a good Jew was meant to follow, Jesus wanted His listeners to understand that “nothing that enters one from outside can defile a person.” If one has ever wondered how the Jewish people became so angry that they had the Romans nail Jesus to a cross, one can look to the passages similar to today’s gospel, for Jesus is literally turning their religious world upside down.
We are meant to guard ourselves from the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Our Catholic/Christian traditions, the Word and Sacrament, are meant to guide us to holiness if we “welcome the word that has been planted in” our hearts. We must be “doers” of the word and not “hearers only.” In the only definition of religion in the New Testament, James tells us that “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 one unstained by the world.” James’ list is, once again, not meant to be exhaustive, and it can be filled out by all that Jesus did and said during His earthly ministry. May we recognize and be grateful for our traditions which have been handed down to us. With God’s grace, which flows to us on a daily basis, may we strive for that holiness which is not only capable of changing our lives for the better, but may it also aid and further the Savior’s redemption of the world we live in.