Growing up, my mom was a very devout Catholic. By that I’m not referring to that old joke about devout Catholics going to Mass only on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. My mom was super-religious.
My mom made sure my brother and I went to Mass each Sunday, went to Confession on Saturday and committed to say the rosary every evening before dinner. That’s a lot of hardcore praying.
Why did my mom push us to do all this? Mostly it was to help us grow closer to God. But honestly as super-religious as we were, the weekly rituals drove me nuts. As far as I knew, we were the only family on the block that did all this.
In truth, doing these religious practices repelled me more from Catholicism than they did to draw me closer to God. Today’s readings touch upon this very subject.
From our gospel today, we have a glimpse into what religious life was like in first-century Israel. We enter the story with the Pharisees upset at what they had observed of Jesus’ disciples: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Most of us understand that it is a great idea to wash your hands before every meal. According to Jewish traditions, however, it was done on the grounds that the ideal of holiness demands a special, ritualistic cleansing of hands. It was seen as a way of introducing holiness into the mundane lives of the Jewish people.
Visualize for a moment doing this Jewish ritual…
You pour water from a glass twice on the right hand, then twice on the left. Making sure as you do this that the unwashed hands do not touch the water used for washing. As you pour water, you recite this benediction: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.” Towel-dry your hands and you are now ready to partake in the meal.
As you pictured yourself doing this, did you suddenly feel holier than normal? Probably not.
If this religious act in and of itself was meant to draw people closer to God–to experience pure holiness–then why does Jesus strongly criticize the Pharisees?:
“Isaiah prophesied rightly 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 human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
What I see Jesus saying is that the focus of religion is not on the ritualistic practices we do. Doing all the pious, religious things we do: mindlessly doing them won’t bring you closer to God. The act in and of themselves serve no real purpose.
Faith, religion, devotion to God: whatever word or phrase you want to use. The kind that truly matters to God is one that leads you to serve God by serving those who are in need.
As Jesus once said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” When you look into the eyes of someone you help, you stare at the face of Christ himself.
As followers of Christ, striving to do good in this world, we know we have been called to serve. But we are also called to tame our hearts.
As Jesus said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, promiscuity, envy, slander, pride, folly or a lack of good sense. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
To summarize, remember the words of the apostle James:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.