Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the September 20, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
Once again with the accuracy the movement of the sun, moon and stars parishes have begun preparing a slate of programs and ministries for the coming year. In many a faith community the pastor, religious education coordinators, youth ministers and catechists are hard at work as the Holy Spirit prompts their generous commitment of time and talent.
In making preparations for a presentation to a group of such pastoral planners I found myself reading a few books and articles about how children learn. One article coincided conveniently with a recent Sunday Gospel.
The author explained how “perfect” parents and educators need to be attentive to the manner in which children present themselves and their issues. An example may be the little one (or big one) who tattles on another. Imagine you are in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, and little Charlie bursts in the door: “Mommy! Mommy! David didn’t take out the garbage like you told him!” What’s the perfect parent to do? Some may take the news at face value and march off in haste to find David. The “perfect” parent, however, is to explore the situation further with a key question in mind: Why is this little one making such an issue out of this small act of disobedience? Is it really disobedience, or is it someone establishing their identity? Hence, the author says, the response should not be “Oh, you just wait; I’ll go punish him,” but rather “Oh, dear. Really? Why do you tell me this?”
Now, what’s the connection with the Sunday Gospel? Remember the scene we prayerfully pondered a couple weeks ago: Jesus has been preaching about the presence of God’s kingdom the pursuit of which was to be at the heart of the spirituality of every Jewish believer. After all, the God of Israel was encountered as a saving God whose presence is found in the unfolding mystery of personal lives, a God who always invites his children into a loving and saving relationship of grace – a God who constantly summons deeper and deeper faith.
Some Pharisees rush up to Jesus with what they consider startling news. Not the good news that they had been surprised by God’s grace, but that they had noticed that his disciples had not washed their hands before eating, as prescribed by pious custom. Big tattle-tales!
Jesus’ response is an important one to study because it challenges us to correct a potential fault in our own spiritual journey. A Jew himself, Jesus knew well the prescriptions and religious traditions of his society. He also most probably had learned from childhood to wash his hands before eating – not primarily for hygienic reasons, but as a form of purifying prayer which enhanced a consciousness of God.
It is interesting to note that Jesus does not pass off such a simple thing as hand-washing as a non-consequential and meaningless gesture. Neither in this scene nor anywhere else in the Gospels does he belittle religious practices or judge them as unnecessary or superfluous.
What concerns Jesus in this scene is the reason why the Pharisees have tattled on his disciples. The problem is that they had turned his semi-liturgical action into a disordered litmus test equal to one of the Ten Commandments. Using the Gospel image, they had equated a “mere human tradition” with the demands of covenant relationship.
Religious practices in themselves cannot be used as the measure of relationship. They are expressions of it. Religious practices have their place in a wholesome faith life, but they are not its measure. It is of paramount importance that people of living faith know the difference and live accordingly. The Pharisees could not.
This Gospel scene does not just present us with a source of historical amusement about a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. It is our challenge today as well because it is tempting to judge our own relationship with God merely on the basis of our religious practices and what Jesus would call “human traditions.” Equally damaging is the temptation to judge the moral character or “faithfulness” of others on the basis of their religious practices. We too can be guilty of tattling.
When someone tattles on another, it is usually because they want to be affirmed that they are okay or good because they aren’t breaking a rule like someone else. They equate their practices or behaviour with their moral goodness. In effect, the Pharisees want Jesus to tell them that they are good people (even better than the rest) precisely because they are so faithful in observing all the practices prescribed by the Torah. They want him to guarantee that by their mere practices they have achieved the object of religion: namely, a life-giving relationship with God’s saving love.
Jesus refuses to do so. He forces the issue beyond the practice of religion to the heart of faith. We must do the same in relationship to ourselves as well as in our perception of others. We are not good Catholics just because we observe the laws of the Church, attend Mass on Sunday, say Grace before all meals, etc. And we are not necessarily bad people because we don’t.
Religious practices have their place, their proper order. And their importance falls into place once a living relationship is established. The Pharisees are attentive about religious practices but lack living relationship. At times their fear of mystery and grace builds a barrier between them and the very God for whom their heart yearns.
Let’s be honest: It can be that way with us as well. There are elements of the yeast of the Pharisee in all of us. We are not the perfect parent, nor the perfect Catholic, nor the perfect Christian. Jesus simply will not allow us to play games and certainly not tattle on one another because we think our practices make us better than someone else. He keeps calling us into a relationship with God’ s unconditional love. That relationship expresses itself in acts of piety and devotion – and not the other way around.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Moderator of the Curia and pastor of the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa.)
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