How many Aggies does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Three—one to turn the bulb, one to yell “whoop!” and one to call it a tradition. Groan. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard that one before.
Now, as a rule, I don’t normally begin homilies with a joke, but this one seems to be fitting today, because in the Gospel reading, our Lord criticizes the Pharisees for clinging to human tradition.
In our culture, just as in every culture, we have so many traditions. This weekend, for example, down in West, it’s West Fest! It’s a tradition! And what about dove hunting season? That started this weekend, too. Maybe your family has a traditional hunt every year. What about the homecoming festivities at the school? [And certainly you college students have university traditions as well. Some may even involve light bulbs.] So, is Jesus condemning all these traditions?
Before I answer that, what about Catholic traditions? Like our belief in the Immaculate Conception, or the Creed, or Corpus Christi processions or even December 25th being the date we celebrate Christmas? What about the Rosary, the veneration of relics, Mass itself? These, too, are traditions—things handed down to us from the ancient and medieval Christians. Is Jesus condemning all these traditions too?
I’ll answer the second set first, and then we’ll come back to the first set. These Catholic traditions belong to what we call Sacred Tradition, that is, Tradition with a capital T, and they are certainly not lumped in with the sort of traditions that Jesus was condemning. The word tradition comes from traditio in Latin. That word means “that which is passed down or handed over.” You see, our Lord Jesus, before departing from this earth, founded a Church. He founded the Church in order to ensure that our knowledge of him and our love for him would never be lost. In every age, those who know Jesus are entrusted with the responsibility of handing down our knowledge and love for Jesus to the next generation. In other words, to hand down the Faith. And this has been going on since the time of the Apostles. That’s called Sacred Tradition.
Some Christians today would say that we don’t need all this messy tradition business. After all, I’ve got my Bible, and it’s the Word of God, so that’s all I need. Well, consider the fact that the books of the Bible hadn’t even been finished until about the year 90. Jesus died in about 33. Does that mean that Christians in that 57-year window had no knowledge of Jesus? Of course not. They passed down their knowledge and love of Jesus thru tradition. The Bible, with its current Table of Contents, didn’t even exist until the year 397. How did the Church leaders know what books to include and which ones to exclude? They relied on tradition. What about the literacy rate of the ancient and medieval world? Only a small percentage of the population could read. That means they couldn’t read a Bible even if they had one. Were they, then, completely ignorant of Jesus? No. Once again, they learned about him thru tradition. And if that’s not convincing enough, how did you, personally first find out about Jesus? Did you happen upon a Bible one day and read it, cover to cover? Of course not. Your parents, relatives, and friends told you about Jesus. That’s also tradition.
The point is, Jesus is revealed to us in two equally valuable ways: thru Sacred Scripture (the Bible), AND thru Sacred Tradition. One could even make the argument that the Bible itself is a sort of tradition—it, too, is handed down. So no, Jesus is not condemning religious tradition in this Gospel reading. That would be self-defeating in the mission of the Church.
What about cultural traditions, those “small T” traditions? Is Jesus condemning those? And the answer is, not necessarily. The Czech Heritage parade, the family hunt, the homecoming court—these are good things, because they bring us together and lead to a spirit of communion. The danger they can present is when they take on a religious status. As in, they become the most important thing in our lives. When our human traditions take precedence over our religious practices, we disregard the priorities God has given us in favor of the priorities we want, which are always of lesser value.
To take an example from Scripture, in this same seventh chapter of Mark’s Gospel, (and yes, we are now back in Mark’s Gospel) Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for creating new traditions and superseding God’s Law. The Pharisees had created a rule that exempted one from financially supporting his mother and father, as long as the money was “dedicated to God.” Now, this is an age before government-run social security, pensions and 401(k)s. It was the adult children’s job to take care of their parents, and by doing this, they fulfilled the fourth commandment: honor your father and mother. But the Pharisees had said, “Nah, you don’t have to do that, as long as the money comes to the Temple.” Well, this is a self-defeating rule. Why would God want you to disregard his own commandment in order to dedicate money to his Temple? This is the sort of thing Jesus was condemning: when human-created traditions overtake the Law given by God.
We have to constantly guard against this tendency—the tendency to disregard God’s commandments, and give ourselves a pass. To cherry-pick the parts we like, and toss out the rest, as if following God’s commandments was like going thru a cafeteria line. “I’ll take some of this one, but not that one; I like this, but not that.” That is setting up our own human tradition in place of God’s Tradition.
We also have to guard against the tendency to use religious rules as a weapon against others. The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are, and the second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. The religious rules and practices are there in order to form us in a habit of loving God and loving others. When they cease to do so, that is, when rules and practices become a weapon with which we condemn others, we have violated these greatest commandments; we have lost sight of their purpose.
This is what the Apostle James meant in our second reading today:
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]
In other words, to care for our neighbors in need is to achieve the goal that our religious practice prepares us for. What it doesn’t mean, is that social justice takes the place of religious practice. Consider this: what is the purpose of going to football practice? To win more games. The ultimate goal is to win a championship, right? Well, do the champions from last season quit? Or do they go right back to practicing before the next season? Of course they go back to practice. Well, in the Christian life, every day is a new season. Every day we play the game of doing acts of charity. We need religious practices because that’s our practice field. It’s our spiritual weight room. But we don’t stay in the weight room. We go out on the field to play the game. It takes both.
The Pharisees were criticizing the Apostles because they didn’t follow the religious purity rituals. But the purity rituals were developed for a couple of reasons. First, to guard against actual disease. Turns out, it is healthy and practical to wash your hands before you eat with them. Second, because these purity rituals were meant to guard a religious person against the bad influences of the world around them. The Jews were living in a world that was predominantly pagan. The purity laws kept them from losing their religious and cultural identity. Their purity was based on the food they ate, the people with whom they associated, and the places they lived.
But Jesus, on the other hand, looks beyond the external rituals and unveils the purpose behind them. There’s nothing inherently evil about eating pork. There’s nothing inherently evil about taking a long walk on a Saturday. There’s nothing inherently evil about living outside of the Promised Land. But, these external rules were put in place to guard against the far more dangerous internal evils. Jesus lists some of these: adultery, blasphemy, envy, licentiousness, etc. By the way, these evils are everywhere in our culture today. It would be easy to fall into a Pharisaical puritanism, trying to escape the world, to disengage with our opponents, or create new dietary laws for ourselves. But we Christians, in order to be a light to the world, must also be in the world. We do our best to follow the words of St. James, “to keep oneself unstained by the world.” That statement presupposes that we are in the world, at risk of being stained by it. Yet, we strive with all that we are to remain unstained, that is, internally pure.
Religion is meant to produce this sort of purity within us. It is not a set of arbitrary, external rules. Rather, it is a training ground for saints, a gymnasium for holiness. The exterior and the interior must come into harmony in each one of us, until we resonate with holiness. It is holy disciples that pass on the Faith, until our generation becomes one more link in the chain of believers. And that, brothers and sisters, is the true meaning of tradition.