There were many types of Jewish religious groups when Jesus preached. There were the Essenes who lived out in the desert and dedicated their lives to studying the word of God. Many scholars believe John the Baptist was one of them. There were also the Sadducees who worked to promote the Law as handed down by Moses in the first five books of the Bible. The Zealots were another group who fought to expel the Romans from the Holy Land and restore rule to the Jews. Judas Iscariot is believed to have been one of them. And, perhaps the most well known group were the Pharisees. They were a group of lay Jews who tried to live every prescription of the Law down to the letter.
While Jesus had something challenging to say to all these groups, it was the Pharisees who most often got His blood boiling. Jesus criticized them for letting attention to the letter of the Law blind them to the needs of the people around them. Because of their discipline and status in the community, they felt free to judge others who did not meet their rigorous standards. They reduced God’s Law to a list of rules to be followed rather than as a way of growing in goodness and mercy. In today’s gospel, Jesus takes them to task for their concern about the ritual washings that are part of Jewish religious practice. He calls them “hypocrites” because they appear to be good and pious on the outside but in their hearts they are full of bitterness and pride.
Just as there were many different types of Jews in Jesus’ day, we can say that there are many different types of Catholics in our own day.
Perhaps everyone has heard of “cafeteria Catholics”. Such people want to pick and choose what they believe. They like the Church’s teaching on the poor but think her stance on abortion and marriage are outdated. Or, they may defend the Church’s teaching on the dignity of unborn life but believe that poor people are to blame for their misery and that we have no obligation to help them. Not only do they pick and choose between beliefs but also between religious practices. For instance, many cafeteria Catholics are happy to receive communion every week but never want to go to confession. For cafeteria Catholics, God, the Bible and the Church are not the foremost authorities on what is true but their own personal tastes and preferences. They reduce God and faith to what is comfortable for them and reject anything that might call them to change and grow.
There is another group of Catholics we might call “the ticket punchers.” For them, religion is about meeting all the duties of their faith. They come to Mass every Sunday out of obligation, punching their ticket to say they showed up and then leaving without having any idea what the readings were. They are sure to show up for Ash Wednesday to receive their ashes and for Palm Sunday to get their palms blessed. During the Fridays of Lent they will not touch meat. They are sure to send their children to religious education classes and receive all the sacraments right on schedule. However, their religious practices have no effect on their attitudes or behaviours. They have reduced faith to a list of duties that they have to meet as insurance that they will have all the holes punched on their ticket when they get to heaven. Like the Pharisees, they do all the right things but their heart is never changed.
Finally, there is a group we might call “the religion police.” They follow all the rules and make it their business to ensure that everyone else does too. They are the ones who write to the bishop every time their parish priest does something they don’t like. They do everything right and take notes on who is doing anything wrong. Like hawks, they scan the congregation looking for any excuse to criticize others. Rather than make them more merciful and compassionate, their religious practices make them judgemental and angry. They reduce faith to only keeping the rules.
I’m not trying to point fingers or single anyone out. Much less do I want to judge anyone. However, I think that there is a bit of the cafeteria Catholic, the ticket puncher and the religion police in each of us. What do they all have in common? They reduce faith to something that they can control, whether it is rules that are easy to follow or mere obligations that they can meet without much difficulty. They also keep faith at arm’s length. They never allow faith to challenge or change them. Rather than as a means of growth, faith becomes a way to stroke their egos.
How different is the faith that the Bible teaches and the Church professes! It is a faith that always challenges us to go outside our comfort zone. It is never content with outward shows of belief but demands that we have hearts filled with love and compassion. The faith of the Bible and the Church is never content with just following the rules but requires us to go above and beyond the call of duty to focus on the poor and needy and how we can best serve them. It puts people before practices. Most especially, it does not simply accept society’s standards of right and wrong but looks to the unchanging God and His word for guidance. As Saint James teaches us in today’s 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.”
Rules and beliefs are important. They are given to us by God to guide us and teach us His ways. However, their primary purpose is to help us grow in love and compassion. If our practice of the faith is making us more self-centered, more judgmental or if we use it merely to massage our egos, then we have lost our way. Fortunately, God is merciful and is always ready to welcome us back. We need only ask His Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds and to lead us in the right way. Then our faith will bear fruit in good works and in hearts that truly love.