14 September 2009

True Religion

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 30 August 2009

Readings: Dt 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“The Pharisees and scribes questioned him, ‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?’” (Mk 7,5)

To this apparently simple question, Jesus responded with a polemic against the Pharisees and their practices.

First, a clarification. A contemporary cursory reading of this Gospel text may not make sense out of Jesus' words. Was he really against the washing of hands before eating, the washing of cups and jugs, of kettles and beds? The issue is not about hygiene. The issue is about the practices of ritual purity vis-a-vis the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

Hypocrisy here may be understood in its original Greek sense: hypokrites, an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. Jesus questions the authenticity of their faith behind their outward observance – and imposition – of their expanding universe of laws and statutes.

The readings this Sunday describe what makes an authentic faith, what constitutes true religion.

I. A Religion of the Law

True faith naturally involves the observance of commandments. In Deut 4,6 in the First Reading, Moses exhorts the Israelites to observe carefully God’s commandments “for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations”.

Further, the Law is seen as a sign of God’s love for His people. For indeed, the Law is set in place so individuals and society may live peacefully and flourish.

II. A Religion of Love

James 1,22 in the Second Reading says it is not enough to hear and believe: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only”.

James 1,27 says “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.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.”

Using these two descriptions as a context, we observe two faulty tendencies among Christians today:

1. Overemphasis on the Law

Jesus’ polemic was particularly directed to the Pharisees’ overemphasis on the law or, more precisely, on their particular interpretation of the law.

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.' You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition.” (Mk 7,6-8)

Today we see this tendency manifested in the way certain leaders use a fundamentalist and/or radical interpretation of scriptures and traditions to further their personal and political agenda, at times through violent means. The Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness once said: “The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.”

We also see this tendency being played in our very Filipino fondness for rituals and outward observances, and the often overlooked disconnect between these observances and so many of our moral choices. The legislators who propose the RH Bill do not see anything contrary to their faith with their refusal to recognize the constitutional provision protecting life beginning at conception. The city councilors who do not object to casino and bingo operations do not see anything wrong with their promotion of gambling. The people who participate in corrupt practices and election fraud don’t show any qualms in publicly professing themselves as devout Catholics, even Marian devotees.

2. Emphasis on Love Alone

It was the poet John Keats who may have first wrote: “Love is my religion”, but it was the reggae artist Ziggy Marley who popularized it the most.

There is also a tendency among many to view love, e.g., good works, philanthropy or just simply not causing harm to anybody, as sufficient expressions of faith, or the “only thing that all religions teach”. And to regard Jesus only as a popular teacher of love and universal brotherhood. A popular line from this school of thought: “I see myself as more spiritual than religious”. People who espouse this view call themselves Christians or believers of God but don’t want to be bothered by the moral and legal demands of religion, often to justify their morally questionable lives. They would like to treat religion the way they would eat fat-free ice cream or drink zero-calorie soda: enjoy the good without the guilt.

The author Annie Dillard has this short sketch in her book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “Eskimo: 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?' Priest: 'No, not if you did not know.' Eskimo: 'Then why did you tell me?'”

A recent controversial atheist advertisement on buses, which started in London and spread to other cities, goes: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Of course, they’re missing the point. Guilt is not an imposition of religion. Guilt rather is a spiritual symptom that manifests whenever we make morally unhealthy choices. Guilt is that feeling that tells us we are getting estranged from God, thus triggering the instinct to seek reconciliation with Him.

III. Ultimately, true religion leads to God. (This is almost too obvious a statement but for the two tendencies cited above.)

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

“Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal yet public dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.” (CIV 3)

It is not enough that we do the right things. It is not enough that we love. Any regular sane person can do these things. A true faithful follows the law and loves because it leads him to God, and as a response to the God who loved him first. This is true religion.

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