I have often heard the claim that Catholicism is too prescriptive and full of human traditions. Some of the passages quoted to support this include one which occurs in our Gospel today:
This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.
You put aside the commandment of God
to cling to human traditions. (Mark 7:6-7)
(Just as a side note, Jesus is quoting here from the Septuagint (LXX) version of Isaiah, the one which Catholics have used from the beginning for their Old Testament.)
They follow this up with one that occurs in today’s Second Reading from James:
Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it (James 1:27)
… as if that’s all a Christian has to do. By the way, they often forget the second part of this sentence, which says
and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. (James 1:27)
How odd then, that the very passages quoted by some anti-Catholics are the ones which we Catholics have ourselves placed together on the same day in the Lectionary. Is Jesus really telling the Pharisees to ignore the Mosaic law? Of course not, because in Matthew 23, which we read earlier in the week, Jesus says, regarding the scribes and Pharisees:
You must therefore do and observe what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practise what they preach. (Matthew 23:3)
What Jesus is after is our conversion of the heart, a humble obedience to the central thrust of God’s commandments – love of God and love of neighbour. Some people seem to be under the misguided impression that Jesus condones sin, but Jesus himself calls out sin quite clearly further on in the same chapter of Mark.
For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within and make a man unclean.’ (Mark 7:21-22)
If we take the opposites of this list of potential evils and seek to develop our character along these lines, we will be entering into the heart of God’s law:
|Fornication||Chastity, openness to children within marriage|
|Theft||Honesty and generosity|
|Murder||Supporting life, opposing abortion and euthanasia|
|Avarice||Generosity, charity and unselfishness|
|Malice||Wishing the good of the other|
|Deceit||Truthfulness, (including truthfulness about concepts such as marriage, by the way).|
|Indecency||Modesty and chastity|
|Envy||Contentment and kindness|
To get back to our original question, the Catholic Church, even though its individual members may display all the propensities to evil that the rest of humanity is prone to, still proclaims what is at the heart of God’s laws, often in the face of violent opposition by the dominant culture. The many guidelines that the Catholic Church proposes are signposts to help us form our character in such a way that we will stay in alignment with Christ’s requirements for his followers. As one example, if we say it’s a sin to stay away from Sunday Mass, we mean that you are endangering your soul if honouring God is not a more important priority in your life than whatever else you have replaced that time with on Sunday (or Saturday Vigil).
Another message for us at all levels of the church is: have a good look at the example you’re setting. The Pharisees Jesus was talking to found it much easier to spend their time complaining about others rather than improving their own characters. If you are a priest, are you a real shepherd to your flock? Do you know every parishioner by name and know what their struggles are? Do you organise parish groups to learn and grow together in Christ or are you content to do no more than offer Mass? If you are a parishioner, how much time do you spend complaining about the priest? … or other parishioners? Well done if you’re a builder-upper and not a breaker-downer!
To listen to Fr Barron’s homily for today, which discusses the purpose of God’s laws, go here.
Word format: Year B 22nd Sunday 2015
Pdf format: Year B 22nd Sunday 2015