Why is religion so important? It is because it puts us in touch with a special revelation from God that we would not otherwise receive. The Jews believed that through their religion they could know the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt and who had promised them life. God had given them the Law which instructed them how to remain free and not relapse into idolatry. They were proud that God had chosen them to show the rest of the world what a wonderful God they worshipped. “What great nation is there that has its gods as near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call upon them’. Religion then is liberating.
And yet many feel that religion is too restrictive and negative in many of its laws. The Ten Commandments may be acceptable, after all they deal with basics like not killing and not stealing but what about all those food and purity rules? They seem out of date. And yet those who deride Jewish kosher laws as being excessive are often just as concerned about what goes into their mouth. They insist on their five fruits a day and the avoidance of the wrong kind of fat.
The Jews developed their purity laws as a way of guarding their faith, keeping certain boundaries so that that they were not just absorbed into the gentile world. Most religions develop traditions which help them to interpret the basic commandments of their religion in the new situations which arise. There is always the danger that these religious traditions can gradually become more important than the basic commandments.
Then religion becomes corrupt. The solution is not to get rid of religion but to purify it so it plays its essential role of mediating God’s love and justice to us. And this is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel.
The scribes and Pharisees point out that Jesus’ disciples are not observing the purity laws. Instead of apologising for this he plays the prophet and calls them hypocrites because they are play-acting at religion. A long line of prophets in Israel before Jesus had attacked the way those in authority made new laws in order to weave a web of protection around their power and they punished anyone who challenged them. Isaiah said it made a mockery of their worship because “you put aside the commandments of God to cling to human traditions.”
Jesus is not dismissing the externals of religion in favour of just an interior spiritual attitude. He is pointing to a danger which afflicts all religious people Jew and gentile, catholic and protestant. We can develop religious traditions, whether they are the meticulous details of eating regulations or the intricate instructions of liturgy, which take on a greater importance than the basic commandments of our religion.
The laws and ritual of religion should enable us more easily to encounter the God who has revealed his love to us especially in his concern for our freedom to worship and to do justice.
The basic commandments are concerned not so much about what we put into our mouths but what we allow to come out of our hearts. Our religious worship should allow us to open our hearts to the transforming power of God’s love which can overcome the destructive forces which Jesus lists today from fornication and theft down to pride and folly. “All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.”
Jesus was ready to challenge religious traditions for the sake of the deeper purpose of the Law. He ate with sinners, he touched a corpse, lepers, the impure and later in this chapter he reaches out to the deep needs of an unclean Syrophonecian woman. For the whole purpose of his people Israel was to reveal their God to the world and to be a light to the gentiles.
When we come to worship we are invited by Jesus to examine our own religious practices. Do we get too caught up with our human traditions and end up with lip-service? Or do we ask whether religion in our lives puts into practice St James’ rather down- to- earth definition in today’s second reading:
“Pure unspoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it”’.