Back in the 16th century, in the aftermath of the European conquest of the “New World,” the Dominican theologian Francisco di Vitoria [1492-1546] pointed out what he called “many scandals and cruel crimes and acts of impiety,” that accompanied – and in his view undermined - the attempt to evangelize the Native American population. He wrote: “It does not appear that the Christian religion has been preached to them with such sufficient propriety and piety that they are bound to acquiesce in it.” Then as now, scandal and sin obscured the Gospel’s message and undermined the Church’s mission. Nowadays it is moral failures and failures of leadership primarily on the part of those of us who publicly represent the Church that have scandalously disfigured the Body of Christ, obscured the Gospel’s message, and undermined the Church’s mission. Meanwhile, in this terrible time of testing for the Church, opposing factions within the Church are attacking each other with even more than the usual ferocity, mimicking the hyperpolarization we see in secular society, further obscuring the Gospel’s message and undermining the Church’s mission. As the great 20th-century American convert-theologian Avery Dulles [1918-2008] once warned, "A polarized society simply cannot attract new members or new leaders of high quality."
The situation recorded in today’s Gospel [Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23] between Jesus and the Pharisees was somewhat different. For one thing, the Pharisees themselves were for the most part good people with the best of motives. The Pharisees were one of several factions in 1st-century Jewish life. Other major factions included the somewhat aristocratic Sadducees (who were the Temple priests), the Zealots (who wanted to liberate Israel from Roman rule), the Essenes (who lived a quasi-monastic life in the desert), and then, later in the century, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, the faction that came to be known as Christians.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were committed to take religious observance as seriously as possible, while combining that with life in society. They promoted a day-to-day spirituality, that sought to make the Law come alive in daily experience, relating its commandments to the various spheres of life, and so living an active, involved life but remaining - as Saint James says in today’s 2nd reading [James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27] - unstained by the world.
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees’ zeal and dedication were widely recognized, Although not a Pharisee himself, Jesus engaged in discussions with Pharisees and accepted dinner invitations to Pharisees’ homes. Nonetheless, the Gospel reports that Jesus also sometimes had some very harsh words for the Pharisees. What Jews call the Torah - the statutes and decrees Moses taught the people to observe - was God’s gift to Israel, a sign of God’s special closeness to his people even in the regular routines of daily life. It challenged the people to become wise and intelligent enough to observe it, and so serve as a witness to the nations. The Pharisees’ problem was that, while the Law was supposed to be a special sign of God’s closeness, here was God himself present in Jesus, but the experts in the law were completely missing the point.
In their desire to build what was called a “Fence around the Law,” the Pharisees, who, like Jesus himself, were all laypeople, not Temple priests, had apparently adopted rigorous rules of ritual purification that applied primarily to the Temple priests - thus taking seriously the biblical image of all Israel as in some special sense a priestly people. The evangelist, trying to explain all this to his 1st-century Gentile Christian audience, emphasized that this tradition of the elders represented a human addition to God’s commandments. The Gospel clearly portrays Jesus as a higher authority than the Pharisees when it comes to the interpretation and application of what God commands as opposed to merely human custom.
Identifying what is essential to living an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out from the human and cultural envelope within which we inevitably receive it, is – always has been, and will always remain – a constant challenge for as long as the good news of Jesus brings new people from every nation, culture, and language into his Church.
This becomes especially challenging in times of significant and rapid cultural change such as we have been living through in our lifetimes. The family, for example, as a social institution is radically different from what family was a century ago. In addition to traditional extended families and modern nuclear families, we also have single-parent families, multi (i.e., more than 2) parent families, blended families, childless families, and individuals single by choice. Identifying what is essential for an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out amid the many human and cultural envelopes we have inherited - or adopted – is no small challenge, especially since so much depends on really getting it right.
On the other hand, creating and maintaining some sort of recognizable cultural envelope – a sort of “Fence around the Law” - within which one can live a moral life in community with others and that can be passed on to the next generation is also important. Some – not all, but some - of the difficulties we have experienced in recent decades have certainly been exacerbated by discovering how fragile the cultural envelope we inherited has been in practice, leaving us less certain and less confident about how to proceed. Sorting out which of what today’s Gospel calls human traditions are best suited to foster an authentic life in today’s context is one of the greatest challenges we face going forward.
How we navigate our way through these opposing challenges matters, lest we delude ourselves, as James warned us against in today’s 2nd reading. If anything, Jesus actually challenged his hearers to an even more demanding standard. Listen to the list of sins Jesus warned against: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (Imagine if we all gave up folly!)
In Jesus, God has become present to transform us into the priestly people which the Law was meant to signal, to turn us around, to turn our entire lives around, to authentic, life-long, day-in, day-out discipleship – or, as James more poetically expressed it, that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 2, 2018.