|Statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil|
It is helpful in today’s gospel passage (Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) to distinguish what our Lord is condemning from what he is not condemning. Our Lord is not condemning ritual action per se. We realize this if we call to mind elsewhere in the Gospel where our Lord states that he has come not to abolish but to fulfill the law. What our Lord is condemning in this gospel passage is the temptation to keep our hearts distant from God.
This temptation can take a variety of forms. One form is indeed to cloak itself in a form of religious ritualism that really misses the mark. Here our Lord quotes Isaiah, “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 commandments but cling to human tradition. This misuse of ritual as a means to hide our hearts from God rather than the proper exercise of ritual which guides one to an encounter with the Divine can often be seen in the tendency to (as a friend of mine would say) “major in the minors.” This means to get lost in an over focus on what is of little importance while neglecting the loftier things. In our first reading for the Sunday (Dt. 4:1-2, 6-8), Moses reminds Israel that the statutes and commandments of the Lord are given that they might have life. The commandments are given in order that the Israelites might live with hearts open to an encounter with God.
This is one way of keeping our hearts distant from God but there is another way which is quite prevalent today and also worthy of note. This second way of keeping our hearts distant from God is witnessed in a lack of respect for ritual. This can be heard often in the critique that the Catholic and Orthodox Church are just about “dead ritual” that has no real value in the true Christian life. This perception demonstrates a profound ignorance both about the sense of God in one’s life and also often an over-inflated sense of self. Downplaying the awareness of God as the transcendent mystery while inflating our own ego (which I would argue often happens in many Christian circles today) is another way of keeping our hearts distant from God. One might profess relationship with Christ but it is, in fact, easy here to keep ones heart distant through both an over focus on self and a viewing of God as just being the means by which I and my needs are satisfied.
Ritual, when properly lived, reminds us that it is God we are approaching. Ritual calls forth respect in regards to what we are about and also to Whom we are addressing ourselves. Ritual, through its concrete action, opens our hearts to an encounter with the Divine Mystery. Ritual, truly lived, recognizes God as God and reminds us of our proper place in this encounter.
Both ritualism and the denial of any value to ritual can be used to cloak the same sin: keeping our hearts distant from God. Today, Christ invites us to do a little heart surgery in our lives – to acknowledge the root of our sins and to acknowledge that these sins grow in our lives and in our world precisely in relation to how much we keep our hearts distant from God.
From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.
“By affirming this, Jesus clarifies that evil does not grow by chance, as if it was the fruit of a blind destiny. Evil has its own soil that is the heart. And it has also its farmers: men and women. Each person is a farmer, at times very active, of small or large quantities of bitter grass in our hearts, grass that often poisons our lives and the lives of others.” (Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, The Word of God Everyday)
We are responsible for the bitterness in our world and also, often, in our lives. No one is exempt. But, just as we can be farmers in our hearts sowing bitter grass, we can also be farmers sowing that which is true and good – solidarity, compassion, patience, humility, piety, mercy and forgiveness. Our Lord knows that it all happens in the heart and the first step is to stop keeping our hearts distant from God. In all times and seasons, we ought to welcome the word of the Gospel and the grace of God into our hearts.
In his letter, the apostle James gives us this wise advice: …welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers who deceive themselves.