The corruption of the faith – Tuesday, 18th Week in ordinary time – Memorial of St Dominic – Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14
This is a hard text to teach and one that could be easily misrepresented if one misses the woods for the trees.
To begin with, this is a watershed moment. We are told in 15:1 that the Pharisees and scribes have come from Jerusalem with a singular purpose; to question Jesus. Clearly, this itinerant rabbi was making waves in Galilee and reports of his teachings have reached the religious headquarters in Jerusalem. We are not told if this is some official delegation sent to question Our Lord but what we do know, is that their question itself was an accusatory one. If that be said, then their intention was not to understand but to attack.
One would have thought that the Pharisees and scribes have journeyed this long and arduous distance because of some doctrinal issue that has come under their scanner. Yet their question to Jesus is not doctrinal but more a ‘violation’ of a social customs that had found religious approval over the years. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
The danger to any religion is when one forgets the core tenants and commandments and gets distracted with peripheral and inconsequential social customs that some how manage to attach itself to religious sacraments, celebrations and customs. The local practice of Catholicism, like the local practices of most religions, are filled with such ‘home-spun’ traditions.
Let us look at the ‘traditions of the elders’ that have brought the Pharisees and scribes all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee. “Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?” In order to understand why this question is so important to this religious delegation one needs to understand that the Jews came to believe that ‘Shibtah’, a demon, attached himself to their hands as they slept and hence ingesting food would be ingesting the demon.
For the Jew, the Christian or any person of any religious faith, what should matter, is the core teachings in its written form. For the Jews, the Torah (or the Pentateuch as Christians call it) which consisted of the first five books of the Bible, constituted the written law. This is the core of the Jewish faith. Besides this, a section of the Jews, namely the Pharisees, began to accept the oral law that they claimed came from the time of Sinai. Remember that the written law, namely the Torah, is not in question here and Jesus has not spoken a word against the Torah.
These oral laws were then codified into the Mishna and Talmud which were commentaries on the commentaries of the Law. The Mishna is a commentary on the Torah and the Talmud is a commentary on the Mishna. The Talmud itself consisted of 8 volumes consisting of a total of 63 books. Remember that these book do not tackle the written law but the oral law and that’s a lot of oral tradition to follow.
So much of faith has been corrupted by traditions that are attached to religion. So many social demands are made of people in the name of religion at the time of Baptisms, Marriages, First Communion and Funerals. The sacraments of penance and the anointing of the sick, which truly deserve a social celebration, are relegated to muted responses. The point I wish to make is crystal clear; what is essential to the faith and core to the tenants of Christianity are rarely practiced with the fervour and devotion by people of faith but the peripheral human traditions have taken centre stage.
Christ deplores this behaviour and in no uncertain words takes on the Pharisees and the scribes. They came to question him with frivolities, while they themselves broke the core commandments of God. “Why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your traditions.” There! Jesus has really got himself in big trouble! The irony is that we can get away as preachers with doctrinally incorrect statements (for none is the wiser) but dare we challenge the flowers and the candles on a grave or the cake and the confetti at a wedding or the boxes distributed at month’s mind masses and all hell breaks loose.
Are you offended reading what I just wrote? I wont be surprised if you are because no sooner had Jesus tackled the Pharisees and scribes (read verse 4 -9) than the ‘concerned’ disciples of Jesus come running to him. “Do you know that the parish council (sorry Pharisees) took offence when they heard what you said?” Oh! I did it again! Have I stepped into a quagmire of beloved religious traditions and offended my readers and listeners?
Let me tell you Christ’s reactions to this home spun religious ‘controversy;’ he took it on by its horns, threw the political correctness into the garbage where it belonged and proclaimed that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles (him/her) (15:11)
Did Christ even care for the Pharisees and the scribes who had come down officiously from their headquarters in Jerusalem? His response was so brutally honest, “LET THEM ALONE” (verse 14). They were undeserving of his attention and of ours.
I warned you at the start of this teaching that this is a hard text to teach especially when scripture holds a mirror up to us. Christ calls the Pharisees in verse fourteen “blind guides of the blind.” That is an interesting statement because he is calling out the ignorance of these religious leaders and the stupidity of their blind followers. In the final reckoning they will be “uprooted” for they have not been planted by God but have planted themselves as religious leaders (read verse 13).
So much of our beautiful Christian faith has been distorted by religious traditions. I am not calling for a boycott of a wedding reception that follows the sacrament of matrimony or any other sacrament. Celebrations are important and serve a social need but when traditions after traditions are layered one over the other and these traditions take centre stage over the essential doctrines of the faith. When we look the other way, when a relative who never takes their child for Sunday mass insists on all the frills and fancies for their child’s fist communion, or when Christian couples who have rejected the faith want to get ‘married in Church, white dress et al or when all this and much more happens in God’s name and the rest of us hold our breath because this is ‘not our business’, then we are nothing but ‘the blind leading the blind and are culpable of the corruption of the faith.