Our sins might not be quite like the Pharisees', but they're not so different either.
We are used to thinking of all the ways people go bad because they lack religion. This Sunday, the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, the Church wants us to pay attention to the unique ways religious people go bad.
One way religious people go bad is by putting religion in the place of morality.
“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition,” Jesus warns the Pharisees in Sunday’s Gospel. For the Pharisees, it was the blessing of “cups and jugs and kettles and beds” that was their problem.
But religious people today are just as prone to embracing the tokens of holiness rather than the real article. Catholics might have all the right medals on our scapulars but be missing the key virtues from our lives, or have all the right stickers on the tablets they use to go to all the wrong sites.
But it isn’t just these externals that can eclipse a real relationship with God: All religion carries the risk of being misused. We can treat the Mass as a time to relax and plan our week, tuning out the readings, homily and prayers. We can even treat confession as a way to ease our conscience while not changing our lives.
This happens when what’s in our heart doesn’t match what’s on our lips.
Jesus quotes Isaiah to speak of the religious people of his day: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” He also helpfully lists the evil that comes from “within people, from their hearts.” The whole list applies to religious people — after all, he is listing them to Pharisees — but some of them might be particularly convicting.
For instance, we are guilty of “evil thoughts” whenever we look at someone and decide that they aren’t as good as us — reducing them to a political category, or body type, style, or moral history that we judge is not due our full respect.
Another is “envy,” which we are guilty of whenever we are anxious to make someone else look worse (or less holy) so that we can look better (or more holy).
We are guilty of “blasphemy” (says the Catechism) whenever in “speech, thought or action” we show “contempt for God or the Church, or persons or things dedicated to God.” Careless social media sharing can easily lead us to become guilty in this way.
“All these evils come from within and they defile,” warns Jesus.
In addition to our heart matching our lips, the Second Reading says our arms and legs should match our ears.
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only,” St. James says in the second reading. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
There are two parts to this admonition. First, we need to actually serve the people God has placed in our power who need our help. We religious people are rightly great admirers of Divine Mercy. But sometimes human mercy is what a situation really needs — our direct help.
But the second part of the admonition is about keeping ourselves “unstained by the world.”
How does the world stain us? It stains our minds if we only expose ourselves to the articles, programs, music and books that think like the world does. Without solid spiritual reading — and programming, and even music — it is hard to stay in touch with God’s way of thinking.
But the world also stains us if we spend all of our time there. Just as a spouses who live hundreds of miles apart are in danger of losing touch, if we spend all of our time apart from Jesus Christ, and never meet him in prayer, we will lose touch too.
Third, we need to be careful not to add to the commandments God has given us.
In the First Reading, Moses celebrates the commandments of God with the people of Israel. “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” he asks.
That is absolutely true, and that means, first and foremost, that people must accept God’s beautiful law and not try to add to it.
In Eden, Eve fell first because she added to God’s law. In her conversation with Satan, she claimed that God was harsher than he is — and that soon allowed her to disregard God’s law altogether.
We religious people do the same thing all the time. We add commandments to what is given — and then when we fail we give up altogether. The Church gives clear guidance as to what morality requires. It also promotes several practices that are worthy and wonderful that are not required by morality — the daily Rosary, novenas, devotions, extra fasting, etc.
Last, says the First Reading, don’t subtract from God’s commandments either.
Often, based on where we stand on the political spectrum, religious people will embrace certain commands of God and reject others.
God transcends politics — but he also embraces some of the extreme political positions we associate with left and right. We don’t get to embrace the ones our political party embraces and shrug off the ones it doesn’t.
Jesus wants us to repent and reform. Even — and sometimes especially — if we are already “religious.”