In today’s Gospel, in response to the Pharisees question about why His disciples didn’t follow the ‘tradition of the elders’, we hear Jesus quote Isaiah: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” And then said:“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
For our understanding – in his rebuke of the Pharisees and their blind attachment to Judaic customs and regulations, Jesus didn’t condemn following these rules, practices, routines or traditions.
Christ is aware that ‘rules’ are needed. We live in a world that challenges our faith; that tries to drive a wedge between us and God. Rituals, rules, practices or as called in the Gospel traditions (with a small t) help us, they keep us on the right path, train us for constant battle with Satan. They are part of a regimen that builds our discipline, fine tunes our spiritual body – strengthens our ability to live our faith. God understands our need for these – indeed He Himself gives them to us. The first reading relates a part of the story of receiving the Ten Commandments. Now it is true that these Commandments are not traditions – they are God mandated and we hear Moses talking with His people about the importance of following them. And though we hear Moses tell them “you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” We also hear him say “Observe them carefully,”; a statement which by its very nature requires the followers to organize their society, their way of life around these God-given commandments – meaning rules and practices.
Rituals, rules and practices allow mankind to share in a common ecclesial patrimony. They give us a sense of continuity – an attachment to the past and a bridge to the future. We learn from our parents and elders all about our faith, we are instructed in the practices that our ancestors have found help in this process. We come to understand our faith through these traditions and all the while feel a level of protection within them; and in turn, we do the same for those who come after us. By following the dictates of the Church, by participating in these traditions during our life we are assured of a closer connection with the Mystical Body of Christ.
No – Jesus didn’t condemn ritual, practices, routines.
But He did condemn the mindset concerning these practices that didn’t open the participants to a better understanding of the Lord’s revelation of Himself and our response as His people. He did speak against those whose whole faith life is centered on these traditions as the goal of their life. These traditions are not what we are striving for, they are a means to the ultimate end – a life centered around and imbued with God. They are helps not rewards.
The difference between poor and good use of these traditions is ‘understanding’. If someone is shown these traditions and not taught the meaning for them – they end up like the Pharisees. And of course that is more an indictment on the teacher than the student.
Yesterday at a communion service at Heritage Woods (Extended care apartment complex) I noticed that a few of the participants didn’t say “Amen” prior to receiving the Eucharist. After the service I took some time and explained the why Holy Mother Church requires communicants to respond with “Amen” before receiving. It isn’t a regulation for the sake of a regulation – it is a normal response to the declaration just made to them “The Body of Christ” (and ‘the Blood of Blood of Christ’). Among other reasons for this tradition I took them through the Mass (where this bread had become Christ) – walked them through bringing their daily lives into the Mass, offering up their failures, their successes, their pain and their joys of the week along with Christ’s offering to our Father, then witnessing the amazing gift of love, the ultimate sacrifice for us, as unworthy as we are, and then having Christ handed to us in His ultimate gift – how could we do otherwise than, in amazement and joy, say AMEN! After the service a man said to me that what he viewed as a petty rule was now a beautiful reality.
This is what Christ wants from our traditions – to become deeper in our knowledge, understanding about His triune self; to go into a tradition (so to speak) and come out its other side with a stronger love for Him and for each of us. Anything short of this brings us down to level of those Pharisees who lived for the traditions, not living by them – for God.