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The Twenty Second Sunday Ord Time B (2018)
Respecting the Tradition of the Elders (Mk 7:1ff.)
The gospel writers were faced with the task of handing on the life and teaching of Jesus in order to make converts of all nations and keep them converted. The task was very difficult. Convert Jews especially would be loathe to give up any pious practices they had been brought up with. Why give them up if they do not contradict the essential faith in Jesus? On the other hand convert gentiles would see no reason to accept Jewish practices since they would only be burdensome and probably pointless. The most obvious cases were circumcision and diet laws. We are relatively well informed on the difficulties that such created. SSs. Peter and Paul, not to mention James, had to come to an agreement as to what was essential and what not in determining these traditions of the elders.
Today’s gospel reading from St. Mark shows us a very sensitive aspect of these issues directed to Jesus himself. He says that Jesus declared all foods clean (7:19c). That is not found in Matthew’s version. The Scribes and Pharisees identified their traditions with the law of God. They said Jesus contradicted it and put his own authority above that of Moses. He had accused them in turn of being hypocrites, and choosing the traditions to suit themselves. Hence the discussion about their treatment of parents in avoiding social and personal responsibilities to care for them. Get your priorities right, he said.
Matthew in his day was probably addressing a largely convert Jewish population. And they were free too to continue their practices if they did not impose them on others. However, Mark’s position is precisely that of St.Paul at 1 Cor 10:25-27. Both Mark and Paul were convert Jews too, but now addressing a mainly gentile readership. One can see the necessity for explanations and adaptations of the position taken by Jesus.
Today’s reading from the Epistle of James is a very down to earth approach to the Christian faith. Good works, caring for orphans and widows come high in his exhortations to his readers. He was not presenting an either good works or faith and prayer, but both good works and faith and prayer. His approach is very much appreciated these days. While our world may seem dreadful in so many respects, yet never in history has so much effort been given to take care of those most in need. Every crisis brings another appeal to help those suffering. The Cafods and Oxfams and other institutes do a phenomenal amount of good work. And many are charities protected at law. Doctors without Frontiers represent a marvellous aspect of medicine that is human and humanising and selfless.
Getting the balance right
Everybody praises the generosity of those who contribute to the social wellbeing of the world’s needy. It is not so easy however to get praise for the contribution of contemplative sisters and monks. Yet liturgical worship is an essential part of all believing communities. A life without private prayer also would be unthinkable for a believer. It is hard to get the balance right. Religious worship is community worship; it is the act of faith expressed together. It makes a public statement about fundamental values shared in common. It is the place where the collective memory of the Church is revered and cherished. Here the most sacred traditions of the elders are celebrated. The liturgy should be beautiful, encouraging commitment to and dedication in a shared way of life. For most believers it is the one time in the week for sharing religious experience overtly.
But religious experience is cultivated in private prayer too. It is when we pray privately that we experience the prolonged engagement with the meaning of our lives. We go into our inner room, with our conscience, and pray to the heavenly Father in secret. In our prayer we take a long hard look at ourselves, and bring the needs of those nearest and dearest to us to continuous expression. The best contemplatives have shown the value of both beautiful liturgy and the need of private silent prayer. Both of these activities are complementary; they are not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’. The model is Jesus himself. He frequented the Temple and the synagogue, and honoured the feasts, and he went off to pray alone.
At the present time we are being exposed to a lot of difficulties political and religious. It is hard to find a true balance in making judgments. Jesus had put a massive accent on having integrity of heart. What comes out of a person is what renders him or her unclean. The major problems associated with child abuse, the refugee crisis, the constant criticism of politicians vilifying each other, the regular criticism of pope and hierarchy, not just from non religious people, but from within the Christian communities themselves, make it hard to keep a balance, and to live in harmony in the communities we belong to. One famous politician of the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, said that a good politician is one who has the disposition to preserve and the disposition to reform (Cf.W.D.Davies and D.C.Allen,The Gospel According to Matthew, Vol II, T&T Clark Ltd., Edinburgh, 1991, p.537). A very distinguished recent convert philosopher described religion as ‘I need to change’. He quotes Saint Augustine on Augustine’s own conversion: ‘The days had seemed long and many, because of my love of leisurely freedom. Until at last I could sing from my inmost depths what my heart declared to you: I have sought your face; your face Lord I will seek’. “But however it happens, authentic conversion involves a radical moral change” (John Cottingham, Philosophy of Religion, Towards a More Humane Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 158-9). The heart is the personal self, and it involves every aspect of one’s knowing and loving- when the balance is right conversion takes place.
Today’s gospel reading seemed to be dealing with something very trivial. But it belongs to the fabric of human life and religious commitment, which seems to remain basic in all ages. The problems are new and old, the tensions are real. We are all in continuous need of conversion. A heartfelt response is required.
A Happy Sunday to you all.
Rev. Richard J. Taylor.
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK