Sunday, September 03, 2006

22nd Ordinary Sunday (B)
True Religion

Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-8; Psalm 14; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

Today I’m reminded of Habib. Probably everyone’s favourite tour guide, Habib is Uighur – an ethnic minority in Xinjiang. As such, he is also Muslim. I’m reminded of a couple of his favourite phrases. When speaking of sensitive political, cultural or social issues, he often said: That is hot potato. I’m also reminded of his 15-20 minute lecture on the Muslim religion, given at the famous Emin Minaret/ Mosque at Turpan in Xinjiang. At two or three points in his lecture we heard Habib use another of his memorable phrases. When speaking of the requirement that women have to cover themselves from head to foot, and of the practice of polygamy, Habib said: That is bad development.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is also dealing with what he sees to be a hot potato and a bad development. He reprimands the scribes and Pharisees for the narrow form of religion that they practice. For them, religion is primarily about keeping the Law. In itself, this is not a bad thing. In the first reading, Moses himself exhorts the people to keep the commandments of the Lord your God just as I lay them down for you. But the scribes' and Pharisees' observance of the Law is extremely constricted. They are only concerned about external ritual practices, such as the washing of hands, cups and dishes. The result? Ritual becomes divorced from life. Worship is separated from justice. Religion becomes burdensome, empty, meaningless.

But if the pharisaical religion is too narrow, what is a fuller alternative? What is true religion, purified of bad developments? The readings present at least two other crucial aspects. We may call the first spiritual. The Law must be kept not simply as a dead letter written on paper, but as a life-giving, God-given, Word that is inscribed on human hearts. As James writes in the second reading: accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls. More than in mere external observance, the saving significance of the Law lies in our relationship with the Law-Giver, who speaks continually to us in our hearts. To observe the Law, we need carefully to cultivate this relationship, to keep communication channels open.

And submission to this living and life-giving Word naturally expresses itself externally in the way one lives one’s life – especially in acts of charity and justice. We may call this the ethical aspect of true religion. Again, James puts it well: Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. We may ask ourselves: Who are the orphans and widows of today? From what forms of worldly contamination do we need to safeguard ourselves?

Today we are being challenged to reflect upon the kind of religion we practice. How do we connect and balance among the ritual, spiritual and ethical aspects of true religion? And what, if any, are the bad developments we need to avoid? Or are these questions too much of a hot potato?


  1. Hi, Father Chris, I have been forwarded this link of yours and it has been of great help to me because I couldn't go church for the past 3 weeks due to the fact that all the masses are held in Swedish here. I am currently based in Jonkoping, Sweden for 6 months and I was wondering if you know any priest here who can celebrate mass in English. Once again, thanks for the inspirational words that have been a source of motivation for me during the stay here.


  2. has been helpful...

    St Franciskus   36120657    Updated: 06/14/2006   Sat: 9 AM Sun: 9, 10 AM (1st Sunday Polish, 3rd Slovenian); 12:30 (3rd Sunday Croatian), 4 (3rd Sunday Vietnamese), 4:30 PM (Maronist Rite) ; Address: Klostergatan 70B Jonkoping Sweden

    Quite multilingual at the abovementioned church ... but no mention of Mass in English. Still, have been to Mass said in Lithuanian, and in Vietnamese, and found the celebration quite beautiful. The liturgy is the same... He is present.