Sunday, September 2, 2012

Washed Up

   Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

A teacher saw one of her pupils
entering the classroom with very, very dirty hands.
She stopped him and said,
“My goodness, Johnny! 
Please go and wash your hands! 
What would you say if I came into the room
with my hands looking like that?”
Smiling the boy replied,
“Well, I think I’d be too polite to mention it…”

Have you ever noticed that Jesus
has a real knack for doing all the wrong things?
He certainly knows the law 
is to do no work on the Sabbath…
…but he keeps curing the lame on Saturdays
and telling them to carry their beds home (Jn 5).
Jesus knows that hanging around
with tax collectors and public sinners
makes a person unclean 
for community worship…
…but he just keeps on having supper in their homes (Mt 9).
And Jesus knows the practice of never eating
without first ceremonially cleansing one’s hands…
…but his disciples dine without washing up anyway (Mk 7).

It seems like Jesus is always intentionally shocking his neighbors,
always going against the grain.
Did he have no regard
for the revered customs of his human ancestors?
Why would the Son of God be born a Jew
if he only intended to challenge and overthrow
the traditions of the religion?  (cf. R. Knox)

What Jesus observed in the Jewish people of his day
was not a failing unique to that time or culture,
but one which is common to the entire human race:
the tendency to be too concerned about appearances.

Today, we may not have the quite same hang-up
about ritual purification as back then.
(Although—I’d suggest—our constant use of hand sanitizers
might come pretty close.)
But in our consumer culture,
we do worry quite a lot about how things look.
As parents, no doubt, know from back-to-school shopping,
we want to make sure our clothes have the right label.
We want to make sure 
that our hair is done like that movie star,
that we’re following the right sports heroes,
listening to the right kinds of music,
using the right cell phone, driving the right car.
Otherwise: What will people think?  
What will people say?

We can fall into the same pitfall 
in our religious practices.
It may not be that we want to
flaunt our religiosity for others to see—
although spiritual pride is a real possibility—
but that practicing our faith 
becomes a well-worn routine:
little more than a habit, 
even though a good one.
(I think, for example, 
of the Catholics I’ve met over the years
who almost never get to Mass,
but always, always, always 
give up sweets for Lent.)
We can observe the tradition
without stopping to give much thought to its meaning—
without letting it penetrate to the heart—
and end up just going through the motions

Jesus didn’t have a problem with observing religious traditions.
We know that from a young age
he went up to the temple to worship with Mary and Joseph.
We know that ee participated in synagogue services on the Sabbath.
We know that, even just hours before he died,
he made provision to eat
a sacred meal—the Passover supper—with his disciples.
Jesus understood the vital place of ritual and custom
in shaping one’s faith, in nurturing one’s faith,
and in passing on one’s faith to the next generation.
(I dare say he’d recommend that our age
become more traditional, not less.)

But while what can be observed on the outside has its place,
it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on within.
That stinging word—hypocrite—
comes from the Greek for an actor:
one who wears a mask; one who isn’t what he seems.
Jesus—I believe—keeps bucking convention
to wake us up to the crux of true religion:
that our words and our actions match up
with what’s really happening in our hearts.
It’s quite right for us to be concerned
about someone else’s opinion of us…
…just as long as that someone else is God.

So keep on washing your hands—
before sitting down for dinner,
before heading back to school,
before coming here to Mass—
just as your elders taught you.
But make an even greater effort—with God’s grace—
to purify your soul of all that would defile it.
Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness
if what it clean is your heart.

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