Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Keeping our hands clean
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 2, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
It is possible that we are so close to our own culture that we cannot recognize its major characteristics. For example, what would someone from Zanzibar identify as the major elements of our culture in the United States? Those who study us often write that we are a generous people, especially when there is sudden and overwhelming tragedy. Others point out how dearly we cling to our democratic way of decision-making. Still others say that we value our independence and our rights.
All of these observations – and perhaps others – are true. Sometimes we just cannot see them because we are too close to them in the course of daily life, as it were.
On the other hand, we can be too distant in time or place from a culture to fully capture its major characteristics and the manner in which they influenced people’s daily lives at that point in time. This distancing in time has given rise to a twist in the study of Sacred Scripture. Often to understand a Gospel scene for example, it is necessary to re-enter its cultural setting.
A classic sampling: The Pharisees are absolutely scandalized that the disciples of Jesus did not wash their hands before they ate. From the perspective of our culture, this objection may strike us as puzzling. Even though we send one another off to “go, wash your hands” before a meal, we make no emotional mountain out of this small bit of negligence if it is not done. For us, washing hands largely is a matter of hygiene. In the culture of Jesus’ day, however, it was another matter. After all, germs had yet to be discovered. We have to assume, then, that hygiene was not the major point of contention; cultic purity was.
Now there’s another cultural twist. When we hear the word “purity,” we most likely think of matters sexual. However, in Jesus’ day, cultic purity had little to do with personal morality – and certainly not in the mentality of the Pharisees. To be culticly pure meant that the person had a right relation with God and could engage in worship and temple sacrifice. Accordingly, the Pharisees we meet in the Gospel narratives are preoccupied with their lists of Things To Do and Things Not To Do when it came to maintaining cultic purity. One particular food, for example, could not touch another; no one could touch blood without washing; pots and pans had to be cleaned in a certain manner; and yes, the hands had to be washed before eating – with all the accompanying prayers.
We may look at this type of behavior with a slight smile. Or we may question how on earth one could possibly equate following such laws and regulations with standing in right relationship with God.
If we are honest, however, we can recognize that it is easy for any one of us to lapse into the mentality of thinking that the mere performance of religious practices – in whatever form – renders us okay in the eyes of God. With that mentality, we are just one small step from self-righteousness, wherein we pride ourselves on what we have been able to manage for ourselves and our own salvation. From there we are merely another small step from being judgmental as we look down our noses at those who are not as culticly pure – as “holy” – as we are. In the end, our entire practice of religion becomes measured by our faithfulness to rule and regulation, whether it be established by an institution or our own personal pursuit of a devotional life.
Perhaps there are those who may happily observe that the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on an unconditional loving God has freed us from “all that stuff.” To a large extent, this is true. A good number of us can look back and wonder how we ever could have been so caught up in following the slew of devotional rules and regulations that were such a part of our early formation. Perhaps we indeed have been freed from an enslavement to them – and that is good. After all, the purpose of religion is to lead one to freedom.
Because we are embodied spirits, however, we all need some form of devotional and ritualistic manner of giving expression to our faith. Faith cannot be lived in the abstract. Even while tossing out the old stuff, we still will find our way. Perhaps some of us want to make the nostalgic trip back into forms of worship and devotional practice which seemed to “work” in the old days – or which we think will guarantee our holiness.
But therein lies the danger that Jesus addresses in this scene as he bantered with the practice-minded Pharisees. Our “practices” may make us feel comfortable, even “grace-filled.” But in themselves, their mere execution cannot be the measure of authentic spirituality. They are observances. They are not measures of whether or not we stand okay with God. Doing them does not necessarily render us culticly pure. Not doing them does not automatically make us sinners.
It is hard to bear our new-found freedom in the Church of Christ. This freedom calls us not to liberation from law, but to its fulfillment, as Jesus reminds us. We may be free from slavery to ritual and performance, but what are we free for? The measure of our standing right with God, or being culticly pure, is not measurable in terms of religious practices; it is measured by attitudes and behaviors which foster the dignity of self and others as sons and daughters of God. The use of things appeals to our desire for manipulation and control. Care for people calls for those decisions of the heart where love and respect find their birth and their expression.
A good Catholic – a good Christian – is one whose witness to faith is found in a trusting relationship with God which leads them to loving service of others. Therein is found our clean hands.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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