A popular line of anti-Catholic apologetics centers on our gospel reading. The argument is this: “you Catholics have lost your way. You rely on human traditions and ignore the commandments of God.” Their usual list of Catholic errors includes the veneration of Mary, her Immaculate Conception, and her bodily Assumption into Heaven. There is also transubstantiation, praying to saints, the confessional, penance, purgatory, and more. We might take great offense at their assertions – but it is a reminder that we should always be mindful about losing our way on the journey to God. We do in fact have our Traditions and our traditions. Lots of Catholics confuse the two. One can easily lose one’s way.
How about the Pharisees? Have they lost their way? They challenge Jesus, asking why his disciples do not follow the demands of Judaism regarding ritual washing. The origins of these practices were a priestly ritual from the day of the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E. By the second century B.C.E. this was becoming a ritual required of lay people – and was promoted as a way to become holy. Not a bad goal in itself. By Jesus’ day there were all kinds of ritual cleansings associated with preparing the meal, eating the meal, and even one associated with the couch you sat on while eating the meal. From my perspective, I would suggest that the goal of holiness got a little lost along the way.
It can happen. It can happen here and now. Ross Douthat, an op-ed writer for the NY Times, would recognize that trend here in the United States – he wrote a book about it titled: “Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics.” Douthat argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of Traditional Faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities and practices that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, encourage our worst impulses, and distorts the core of Christianity – and leaves us increasingly insulated from a world waiting – or as St Paul writes – groaning for conversion and redemption. It is as though “bad religion” seeks the safest way possible. Make it about us and never be disappointed. If that is “bad religion” – what is good religion?”
The only formal definition of religion in the Bible appears in today’s reading from James. It is not an exhaustive or comprehensive definition. But it does provide a starting point for reflecting on what the biblical tradition understands to be true religion. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. 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” (Jas 1:27) – and our readings today, as a whole, help fill in some of the reflection.
The Catholic scholar, Fr. Daniel J. Harrington says that there are five characteristics of true religion evident in our readings today: The first characteristic of true religion is closeness to God, or rather, God’s closeness to us. Ancient Israel’s claim to be God’s people rested not on its numerical superiority or military might but rather on God’s closeness to his people and God’s wise and life-giving commandments in the Torah. Today’s reading from Deuteronomy 4 reminds us that true religion has its origin, power and direction in God’s initiative: “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?”
A second characteristic of true religion is the pursuit of justice. Our Psalm paints a stunning picture of the just person as one who lives blamelessly, does no harm to others, honors those who fear the Lord and is honest in dealing with others. Those whose relationship to God is proper will treat others fairly and contribute to promoting a just, a Godly society.
A third characteristic is practical action. James insists that we be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” Biblical truth is not something only to be admired or contemplated. The truth is something to be acted upon. This is the root of James’s famous definition of true religion as caring for orphans and widows. Here James is echoing an emphasis that is deeply rooted in the Old Testament.
A fourth characteristic is focus on the essentials. Jesus’ opponents in today’s reading from Mark 7 are Pharisees and scribes. Jesus accuses them of paying more attention to their own rulings and traditions than to God’s commandments. Among even sincere religious persons there is often a tendency to mistake what is comforting or ritualize for what is essential, and so they can lose the freshness and clarity of vision that drew them to the serious practice of religion in the first place.
The fifth characteristic is interiority. When commenting on the Pharisees’ adaptations of the laws pertaining to food and ritual purity, Jesus insists that what really defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of the heart. True religion avoids evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder and so forth. What makes a person holy are the attitudes and actions that Paul in Gal 5:22-23 lists as “the fruit” of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The Pharisees and scribes sought the safety of rituals and regulations – and lost their way. The German poet, Goethe, once wrote: “The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers.” Go live your religion out there on the edge: be close to God who is already close to you, pursue justice, take practical action, focus on the essentials, seek a holy interior life. They are dangerous things. These are dangerous times…. Live a religion for these times.