Ritualism without reality – Tuesday, 21st week in ordinary time – Mt 23:23-26

Ritualism without reality – Tuesday, 21st week in ordinary time –  Mt 23:23-26

The Gospel of today deals with the fourth and fifth woe that Jesus pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees. (To read the previous ones please see http://www.pottypadre.com/knock-out/) Jesus is not addressing the scribes and Pharisees directly but He is actually speaking to the crowds and to His disciples (23:1). It is as though He wants to unmask the religious establishment, exposing them for who they really are.

During the 400 years before Jesus’ arrival, the prophetic void in Israel was filled by the thoughts of the scribes and Pharisees. These ‘separated ones’ (the meaning of Pharisee) arose from a deep spiritual desire to be faithful to the Lord and not be corrupted by the syncretism of the time. By the time of Jesus there were about six thousand Pharisees who by profession were middle class businessmen. But what began with devotion ended up in deviation for somewhere over the four hundred years, the Pharisees lost the plot and used their religious beliefs to promote themselves and for material gain.  

One can look at the seven woes of Jesus as a fantastic piece of satire on religious establishments and hopefully unlike the Pharisees I do hope we have the grace to acknowledge the same when faced with the  ‘woes’ of the Catholic Church today.

For example, in today’s Gospel Jesus pokes fun against ritualism without reality.  The book of Leviticus 27:30 and Deuteronomy 14:22-23 command that “tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree” is given to the Lord. In short it prescribed tithes of oil, grain, and wine; herbs were not included. For all the scrupulosity of the Pharisees, to the point of observing the most trivial aspect of the Law by giving the Lord the smallest herbs, the Pharisees conveniently evaded the greater calling to show fairness, compassion, and faithfulness to others. So Jesus pokes fun at them with an interesting statement; “they strain gnats but swallow camels.”

This statement which sounds a bit bizarre to the modern listener needs some explanations. The Jews strained wine through a fine cloth before drinking it to avoid touching or swallowing anything unclean and if a tiny gnat should fall in their cup of wine, they would strain it out  by sucking it through the teeth thus protecting themselves from consuming anything unclean. Yet the very same Pharisees, by their behaviour, were metaphorically capable of swallowing the biggest unclean animal in that region, the camel.

Jesus presses on in His quest for cleaning up the system and in the fifth woe. He now tackles externalism or simply those who make a show of being pious while their hearts were filled with extortion and self–indulgence. Rather than merely engage themselves in external ritual the Pharisees should   have made sure that their hearts were cleansed through repentance and faith.

There is a difference between our person and our personality. In our religious practices we tend to emphasize the personality or what we want others to think we are. God emphasizes the person—what we really are. He desires truth in the inward being.

 Fr Warner D’souza

With help from the notes of John Lowe

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