Sunday Scriptures

What Went Wrong?

by Father Thomas Catania

THE RECIPE CAME straight out of Julia Child; every last detail of it was followed meticulously, but here on the table, what should have been a mouthwatering sole a la Florentine bears an uncanny resemblance to a fish tank whose inhabitants and warranty have both expired in the past 24 hours. It wasn’t supposed to be this way; it just wasn’t! What went wrong?

We might ask the same question of the situation Mark describes: a religion fossilized, the washing of cups and jugs and kettles having become its hallmark, and hygiene appears to stand in for holiness. And yet it is of this very religion that the author of Deuteronomy enthuses, “What other nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us?” — implying (since the context is the “giving of statutes and decrees” to the people through Moses) that the “statutes and decrees” come from God’s own self! By comparison, even a recipe handwritten by Julia Child takes its place among the very small things of existence. With such a promising start, what went wrong?

A bit of backing up may be in order before we indulge in what is an all-too-common Christian pastime, castigating the Judaism of Jesus’ time (and, alas, sometimes in ignorance, the Judaism of today, about which, again alas, many Christians know very little). It certainly was the norm when I was growing up to conceive of a moribund religion, represented by legalistic (and not very friendly) “Pharisees” — whose name had become a synonym for “superficialists” and “hypocrites.” Against these was pitted Jesus, a radical reformer, a breath of fresh air, not to say a gust of mighty wind, sent to blow the house down.

The Judaism Jesus knew was a rather lively “mosaic” (pardon the pun) with any number of sects rubbing shoulders and not a few individuals with decidedly reformist/revivalist streaks — John the Baptist, just for one. It may surprise you to know that among these reformers/revivalists were the Pharisees, a small group of energetic, pious laymen who encouraged close study and practice of the Scriptures (Torah). There is good reason to think that, while the Pharisees were centered in the big city, Jerusalem, and thus may have seen the Galilean Jesus as somewhat of a bumpkin, their ends were not diametrically opposed to his. (About 30 years ago, a book by a reputable Jewish scholar argued that Jesus himself was a member of the Pharisee sect.)

So what went wrong? How could it have come to be that, at least for some observers, one of the great religious traditions had devolved into sterility, into ritualism and legalism? How could it have lost its “spirit?”

Permit me to do a bit of speculating on the basis not so much of history but of patterns of human behavior that are still identifiable among us today.

The “statutes and decrees” Moses handed on were, and had been from the outset, a means of insuring that human beings could find recognizable behaviors for identifying themselves as members of the covenant. Given human nature, they were a quite reasonable way of insuring that covenant membership wasn’t just a nice idea or an uplifting thought every couple of Sabbaths.

Perhaps there is the diagram of the potential problem. James makes clear that “every genuine benefit comes from above… from God…[who] will to bring us to birth with a word spoken in truth.”

James goes on to suggest that for his people, there are concrete behaviors that enshrine this divine outpouring. He mentions “looking after orphans and widows in their distress” and says that such behavior makes for “pure worship… before our God and Father.”

Now, do not miss the point. Washing your hands before you eat may pale in comparison to taking care of orphans and widows, but both are behaviors and both mean something. Both express a value, and both ought to call that value to mind even as they are performed. (Is throwing a $10 bill at a widow really any more of a human act than mindlessly washing your hands before you go to supper?) Either can become no more than rote, no more than an exercise — maybe just for show — if the meaning of either is lost to the one doing the act.

Perhaps that is what went wrong. Pharisees or garden-variety first-century Jews or any one of us among the 21st century Christians on the planet now can readily lose track of the meaning, of the spirit animating the behavior. When the behavior becomes an end in itself, when the spirit is lost sight of, the fossilizing starts. And there is a reason why this passage has been maintained in Christian Scripture all these centuries — not because it recalls an actual event in the life of the historical Jesus, and not because we are invited by divine inspiration to condemn a past institution or its practices. It is there because the tendency always exists, in any structure, including our own church: to let the practice go on long after we have lost the spirit of it.

We have our own “cups and jugs and kettles,” and our own “statutes and decrees.” It is not our primary role to ask “what went wrong” with the Judaism of Jesus’ time — we may never be able fully to parse that matter. It is our challenge to find the spirit of God in the practices we ourselves undertake as religious men and women and to ascertain reflectively that what we do, we do in the spirit of God and that we are inhaling that spirit in every act we undertake as believers.

What if, when confronted by “the Father of the heavenly luminaries,” we should be asked, “What went wrong?”[hr]

Readings for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time:


Psalm 15: 2-3, 3-4, 4-5

James 1: 17-18, 21b-22, 27

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23[hr] Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.