A group of Pharisees from Galilee approach Jesus with a critical attitude. They don’t come alone. They’re accompanied by some Scribes from Jerusalem, undoubtedly concerned with defending the orthodoxy of the simple villagers of the countryside. Jesus’ activity is dangerous. It’s worth correcting.
They’ve observed that in certain aspects his disciples don’t follow the tradition of their ancestors. Although they talk about the disciples’ behavior, their question is directed to Jesus, since they know that he’s the one who has been teaching them to live with such surprising freedom. Why?
Jesus answers them with some words from the prophet Isaiah that shed a lot of light on his message and activity. We need to listen attentively to these words with which Jesus identifies himself completely, since they touch on something very basic in our religion. According to the prophet of Israel, this is God’s complaint.
«This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me». This is always the challenge of any religion: honor God with lips that repeat formulas, recite psalms, pronounce beautiful words, while our heart «is far from God». However the worship that is pleasing to God is born of the heart, of the inner attachment, of that intimate center of the person where our decisions and projects are born.
When our heart is far from God, our worship remains without content. It lacks life, the sincere listening to God’s Word, the love of brother and sister. Religion becomes something exterior that is practiced by rote, but which lacks the fruits of a life faithful to God.
The doctrine that the Scribes teach are human precepts. In every religion there are traditions that are “human”. Norms, customs, devotions that have arisen in order to live out the religiosity of a particular culture. They can do much good. But they can do much damage when they distract and distance us from what God hopes from us. Never should they have primacy.
Ending the quotation of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus continues his thinking with some very serious words: «You put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions». When we blindly attach ourselves to human traditions, we run the risk of forgetting the command of love and we wander away from the following of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God. In Christian religion, what’s first is always Jesus and his call to love. Only later come our human traditions, as important as they could appear to us to be. We mustn’t ever forget what’s essential.
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf