22nd Sunday of the Year
Todayís readings collectively define for us true religion.†
The gospel also has a subtle link with Fatherís Day: the commandment of God Jesus uses as an illustration of his contention that the scribes and Pharisees put aside the commandment of God for the sake of their traditions is the commandment, Honour thy father and thy mother.† All the commandments, including this one, are of course directed mainly at adults, meaning something like: continue to respect them even when they get older, care for them, look after them in their old age. So today let us indeed honour our fathers and our mothers.
But there is a lot more going on in todayís gospel than this.
In its original context, it probably emerges as a vigorous defence by Jesus of some of his little ones.† This is often the case when Jesus goes on the offensive, and Iím pretty sure itís the case here.† Only some of the disciples are eating with unwashed hands (the New American Bible has ďa fewĒ).† Why them, and not the rest?† Because these ones in particular used to be part of the Lost Sheep, the non-included ones, the people Jesus has been particularly interested in seeking out.† As lost sheep, when it comes to traditional Jewish religious customs and rituals they donít know any better.† And yet now they are included.† Jesus is thus engaging in a defence of some of these lost sheep, and of his policy of radical inclusion.
His defence is two pronged.
Firstly, youíve got the bias of your religion all wrong.† Itís all lip service, what matters is the heart.† Rituals all you want, itís what comes from within, from peopleís hearts, which makes the difference, for good or ill. (Note however that this is not a dualism between heart and behaviour, but bias in favour of behaviour which expresses what our real attachments really are, where our heart really lies.) But also, secondly, sometimes these human traditions, albeit in the name of religion, even get in the way of our performance of the key commandments of the law.
There is no evidence to suggest, on the other hand, that in the original context Jesus and the other disciples felt obliged to change their normal, everyday, inherited Jewish practices, of washing their hands and not eating unclean food like pork and such.† For them it may even have been part of their spirituality, in the sense of a way of acknowledging they were parties to the covenant, like their brother and sister Jews, albeit a covenant of the heart expressing itself† importantly in the key commandments.† And there is no reason to think that Jesus would have disapproved of his brother James noted even by the Pharisee party later on as a pious Jewish person in spite of being a Christian.† Indeed, Jesusí point is much the same as James later on: ďPure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of widows and orphans when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.Ē† While still defending his Lost Sheep of the House of Israel, and probably also the newly integrated even more lost Gentiles.
This last bit is part of a longer story, a meditation on which may yet have some lessons for us even today.† My apologies for the following extremely rough re-telling.
The Jesus or
Later on this proved to be attractive not just to
God-fearers but even to out and out Gentiles.†
As more and more Gentiles came along, the question arose, Do Gentiles
have to become fully fledged Jews in order to take this on?† After a struggle, and much thinking and
praying, it was decided: No, provided they keep to a few essentials for the
sake of harmony with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters.† But this Spirit-provoked compromise did not
stop tensions and divisions from manifesting, very, very roughly with St James,
head of the Church in
Some more extreme disciples of Paul (not Paul himself, who
was very careful when addressing his fellow Jewish Christians and was even
prepared to do
There is a lesson in this somewhere in the old debate between conservatives and liberals in the post Vatican II church Ė for both sides, I think.
This debate, Iím getting convinced, is now passť, and Iíve tried recently to move myself beyond it.† I think lots of people on both sides, indeed, are now moving beyond it, perhaps towards a renewal of Jesusí religion of the heart, made possible by the Love of God manifested in Christ Jesus our Lord, expressing itself in the key commandments as indicating our real attachments, but open to rituals both old and new.† In this respect, it may be a good sign that Pope Benedictís first encyclical was a learned and beautifully written treatise on charity.