“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.” (James 1:27)
How do you practice your religion? Religion is such a loaded word these days because people want us to keep it to ourselves. I prefer the question: how do you live out your faith? Because you see there is stodgy religion that can get in the way of our genuine relationship with God. This is exactly what is going on in the gospel today when the Pharisees and Scribes find Jesus' disciples eating with "unclean" hands. Jesus is quick to point out that these "laws" were enacted by the scribes and not given by God like the ones given to the people by God through Moses in the first reading. This ceremonial washing was a ritual or a custom that had developed that carried with it the stigma of being declared unclean or sinful if you did not follow these rituals to the tiniest letter of the law. Jesus calls them out as hypocrites because the ceremonial washings did not bring people closer to God but was an excuse for the Pharisees and the Scribes to lord over the people.
Jesus calling the Pharisees hypocrites is something young people can relate to because they can spot a hypocrite a mile away. In fact, many young people use this as an excuse for not coming to church: there are too many hypocrites. I saw a great meme with Kevin Hart the other day that read:
We’re all hypocrites, including the priest that’s preaching to you, and the reason we are here is because we recognize that we sometimes fall short and are in need of God’s mercy. The Pharisees had no room for that. They were self-righteous, clean, pure, and looked down on everyone else. There was no room in their hearts for taking care of the poorest among them because they were too busy lording over everyone with their rules. Rules and rituals are important, but they shouldn’t hinder or be the end all be all of our relationship with God. Just yesterday, a brother priest and I were swapping stories of parishioners who get bent out of shape when they see just the slightest liturgical error during the Mass. (Listen, I am pretty strict on liturgical rules, but in 13 years of priesthood, I don’t think I’ve ever pitched a perfect game.)
So again rules are important, the commandments are important, but they are supposed to strengthen our relationship with and not hinder our relationship with him or our brothers and sisters. So this is where St. James comes in. He tells us that we must humbly, yes HUMBLY, listen to God’s word and be doers of that word and just not hearers deluding ourselves. We have to humbly admit that we don’t have things figured out. That we are all still growing in our faith no matter how young or how old we are. Why do I go around trying to get people out of their comfort zones when it comes to their faith? Because that’s what Jesus spent three years of his public life doing: calling people to get out of their little, rigid religion box and move into a deeper relationship with God. (Side note: I blocked off the two extreme seating sections close to the back exits of the church this weekend with ropes because frankly those sections are not needed in most Masses and it caused people to actually sit closer to the altar. To my surprise, everyone survived, but as I reflected on this on Sunday night, I realized that this gesture was in line with today’s readings.)
We can’t continue doing what we are doing. Religion does get in the way sometimes of genuine faith. Rules can get in the way, if we let them, of a closer relationship with God. We need to start DOING instead of just listening or pay lip service. We need to care for the poor, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and as Pope Francis implored us this morning: pray for our fellow Christians who are dying at the hands of Muslim Extremists in the Middle East and Africa. And above all, we must see Catholicism as more than a religion, for it is our faith and a way of life. In the early Church, we were called the followers of “The Way.” So let’s make Catholicism more attractive by our actions not just our words. And let’s start with something one simple action this week: invite a fellow hypocrite to Mass next week.