Something Stronger than an Elephant
August 31, 2003
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The elephant is the largest land animal that exists. It is, of course, a very powerful beast. Nevertheless, throughout most of Africa and Asia, elephants are tamed for domestic purposes. Farmers use them to tear down walls and to carry heavy loads. How is this possible? For although the elephant is a cooperative creature, if it decided to wander off, who would stop it? There is a universal and effective means to solve this problem. Farmers in this region will take a wild elephant and tie a rope to one of its legs and then tie the other end to a banyan tree. Now the banyan tree is a huge tree with roots that go deep into the ground. It is immovable. For a few days the elephant will tug on the rope, trying to wander away. But in time he learns that there is no budging the banyan tree. Once that lesson is learned, the farmer’s task is simple. He can take the elephant wherever he wishes and by tying it to a simple little wooden stake in the ground, he renders the elephant immobile. Because as soon as the elephant feels the tug of the rope on his leg, he gives up. He has learned that you can’t move a banyan tree.
This is the power of habit. Once we learn a pattern of behavior, that pattern tends to rule our lives. There can be other ways of acting or thinking, but we usually give in to the pattern we already know, because it is habitual. This seems to be the problem for the scribes in today’s gospel. They inherited a tradition of ritually washing their hands before meals, and they criticize Jesus’ disciples for not following the practice. The scribes were not trying to cause trouble. They were simply giving a custom, a habit, more importance and authority than it deserved. The power of the habit prevented them from recognizing that other and even better ways of acting were possible.
The word of God today calls us to look at the habits, the patterns of behavior in our own life, and to realize the power that they have over us. Certain habits might indeed be good. But there are other habits that hold us back and lessen our ability to live. I imagine that many here this morning have the habit of coming to church on the weekend. If it’s Sunday, it’s into the car and to St. Noel. Now in itself that habit of coming to church is good. But we should not confuse the habit of showing up with the worship of God. What God asks of us is not simply to show up, but to be open to God’s word in our lives. Being physically present in church is not the same as being open to expect God to address us, to change us, and to call us to service. But all too often the habit of coming is given equal weight with the reality of worship, and that can hold us back from growth.
Some of us might have the habit of comfort, the habit of least resistance. We find ourselves at the end of our work plopping down in front of the television set or the computer screen, and hours go by. Over the course of the week we can waste a great deal of time. We never stop to ask ourselves, “What could I accomplish if I spent that time in another way?” I could call a friend that I’ve been meaning to talk to. I could ask the kids how things went in school. I could exercise. I might even find a way of serving my neighbor. All of these things are real possibilities, real options for our time. But we never seize them, because the habit of inactivity, the habit of least resistance, kicks in.
Some of us might have the habit of forgetfulness. We live every day with people in our family, we see our friends often, but we forget how important these people are to us. When was the last time that we remembered why we love our spouse? When was the last time we remembered why we were proud of our children or thankful for our friends? When was the last time we told them so? It is a real possibility to remember and to tell our spouse our love, our children our pride, our friends our thankfulness. These are real options for action in our lives, but all too often we do not seize them because the habit of forgetfulness takes those opportunities away. We live from day to day without ever recognizing the blessings that we have been given.
God calls us to grow, to deepen our life. Change is possible. Growth is a reality. But only if we face the habits that are holding us back. If we do not examine the habits in our life that are stifling us, we give them more power over us. We are a gifted people. We have a great potential. We have a bright future. But if we do not recognize the habits that are controlling us, that future, that potential, those gifts can be lost. We may be as powerful as an elephant, but if we are blind to the habits that control us, we can find ourselves powerless, tied to a small wooden stake as the world passes us by.
September 3, 2006
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I think I have a good homily to offer you this morning, but I first want to warn you that in this homily, there are two digressions—two times when I move off the main point to say something that I believe needs to be said. The problem with any digression is once you leave it and go back to the main point, those who are listening might remain in the digression and keep thinking about it. So in the homily I have clearly marked both digressions. When I finish each one and move back to the main point, please try to come with me.
The homily, as is often the case, begins with a story.
A pastor stood up before his congregation one Sunday morning and said: “My homily this morning will last thirty seconds. It is both the shortest and the most important homily I will ever give, and it has three points. First: there are millions of people hungry in our world and hundreds of people who are homeless living here in our city, right under our noses. Second: Most people don’t give a damn about this. Third: Many of you here this morning are now more upset that I used the word damn in church than that I told you there were millions of hungry and homeless people in the world.
First digression: It is directed to the children here. Yes, I used a bad word in the homily, but that does not mean that you can use it when you go home or anywhere else. Perhaps many years from now, after you have been preaching preached for thirty years, you might want to say something wacky in your homily. In the future you can do it, but not today. Your parents have told you how you should speak. Do what they tell you. And tomorrow when you go to school, if you want to tell your friends that Fr. George used a bad word in his homily, make sure you also tell them why I used that word. If you are going to do that, you must listen to what I am about to say next. So listen. End of first digression.
So why would I use such an unorthodox story in my homily? It perfectly illustrates the tendency that is present in all of us to become distracted by things that are not the most important things. We can become fixated on a bad word that is used but at the same time be unconcerned about the greater evils that are present in our life and in our world. This tendency to become stuck on the small things is found in almost every area of life. When I talk to pastors in our diocese who have parish schools, one of the things they always tell me is the policy on uniforms in a school should never be changed. If you have uniforms, you should not try to eliminate them. If you do not have uniforms, you should not try to bring them in. Uniforms divide a school. Parents and teachers will spend so much time arguing whether they should or should not have uniforms that they forget what the school is about. They forget that the school is not about what children wear but what they learn. This also happens in politics. Every so often a politician will try to introduce an amendment to forbid flag burning in the United States. Now, I am not in favor of flag burning. I would never do it. However, to spend time and government resources on that issue while at the same time ignoring the larger issues of immigration, health reform and poverty, is simply not right. It happens in the church. We can become very attentive, very concerned about how we stand or sit at liturgy, about whether we say this word or that word. It is not that those issues are meaningless. But they are not as important as whether the gospel is being preached or whether our children are being protected.
In all of these examples, the ideal, of course, would be to address both the small and the large issue in the correct proportion. However, it certainly is unhealthy when we fixate on the small issue and ignore the larger one. This is what has Jesus upset in today’s gospel. The Pharisees are concerned about the disciples washing their hands. Jesus insists that there are larger and more important issues to be addressed.
Second digression: It is very important when we read this gospel not to imagine that Jesus is criticizing or rejecting the Jewish law or even Jewish tradition. Jesus was a Jew. He followed the law and loved it. He probably washed his hands before he ate. His point here is not to criticize the law but to remind his hearers that there are more important issues, which cannot be forgotten. One of these issues is the recognition that what is in a person’s heart is more important than how this person appears or what they say. Now this belief of Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. All the great prophets, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, made the same point. We must not ignore what is in the heart. So when Jesus says that those who ignore that truth are hypocrites, it is very important for us not to imagine that Jesus is criticizing Judaism in general or the Pharisees in particular. All religious traditions have hypocrites, people who are concerned about the details and ignore the substance. But that hypocrisy was not typical of the Judaism of Jesus’ day or of the Pharisees. To say that it was, is not only saying something that is historically untrue but it is insulting the religious tradition that Jesus loved. End of second digression.
So let us go back to the main point and let us do so in personal terms. When do we become fixated on the details and ignore the substance? When do we focus on the things that are not that important and ignore what is essential? Do we judge people on how they look instead of who they are? Do we worry about flag burning, but ignore the larger issues of justice in our country? Do we become upset because our son gets a tattoo but ignore the quality of his character? Are we attentive to the details of the words we say in church but are deaf to the cry of the poor? Any time we focus on the details but ignore the substance, we fall under Jesus’ criticism of hypocrisy.
Any time we center on a word but miss the larger meaning, we miss the gospel. Let us pray this morning that we might focus on the things that really matter. Let us pray that we do not give our energy and attention to things, which are marginal but focus instead on the main point. In other words, let us try not to get stuck in digressions—whether those digressions occur in the homilies we hear or the lives we live.
We Are the Pharisees
September 2, 2012
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher, was fond of saying that, “Reading the bible is like looking into a mirror.” The bible does not so much speak about the characters that are in its stories as it speaks about us. So every time we approach a biblical passage we need to keep telling ourselves, “This passage is speaking about me.”
This is very important for us to remember as we listen to today’s gospel, because in today’s gospel Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees. But if we remember Kierkegaard’s admonition, Jesus is not so much criticizing the Pharisees as he is criticizing us. The best way to understand today’s gospel is to approach it with the conviction: We are the Pharisees.
Now two things happen when we take this step. First of all, we grow in sympathy for the Pharisees. If their problem is our problem, we approach them with an attitude that is less quick to judge. This leads to a second fact. When we look at the situation of the Pharisees, we realize that they are not bad people. They are just trying to do what is right. Like Jesus, they honor the law. Like Jesus, they would reject all of those evil actions that Jesus lists at the end of the gospel: unchastity, murder, theft, adultery, greed, malice, deceit. All of these evils the Pharisees, like Jesus, would oppose.
But the Pharisees are also concerned about something else: hand-washing. Now, there is nothing wrong with hand-washing. Hand-washing is a good thing. Steris has made a fortune through it. And there is no reason to believe that Jesus was opposed to hand-washing. But hand-washing was not as important as the weightier issues of the law. So when Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and us, it is because at times we confuse lesser things with the most important things. We are not bad people. But sometimes we give too much attention and energy to things that are less important. In doing this we can miss what truly matters.
This can happen in our relationships. We might love someone but want them to change. We might want a spouse, child, or friend to be more organized, more prompt, more responsible. All of these things are good things. But they are not the most important things. If we become fixated on these lesser matters it is possible that we will not recognize the deeper gifts that are also in the person we love: generosity, faithfulness, or a sense of thanksgiving. Because we choose to emphasize the lesser things, we run the risk of harming the relationship.
This distortion also applies to our role as citizens. As we approach voting in the upcoming election, it is easy to fixate on one-liners and misstatements that are promoted in political advertising. It is easy to unwittingly follow the recommendation of a group or political party or be impressed with the likeability of a particular candidate. All of these things have significance but they are not as important as carefully examining the values that a candidate espouses and whether those values conform to the teaching of Christ. They are not as important as prayerfully discerning which men and women will provide the best leadership for our government.
This truth also applies to our own view of ourselves. All of us have at times fallen short, some of us have failed in significant ways that have hurt our family and our career. Such mistakes and their consequences have a bearing upon our lives and we must take them seriously. But our flaws are not as important as the inherent dignity that God has placed in each one of us as a son or daughter. When we fixate on our failures we can miss the invitation of our merciful God who forgives us and calls on us to begin anew and build a new future.
We are the Pharisees. We allow what is less important to cloud what is essential. We allow the lesser goods in our life to rule the greater. We are not bad people. But at times we let less important desires, ideas and failures dictate what we believe and how we act. The good news is that when Jesus criticizes us in today’s gospel, he does not do so to condemn us. He rather offers us an opportunity. There is still time to set things right and allow what is truly important to guide what is less important. With God’s grace, we can put first things first. And once we focus on what is truly important, we can discern within it God’s will for our lives.
Finding the Right Proportion
August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s gospel is very easy to misunderstand. The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat, and Jesus argues against them. But Jesus is not arguing against hand washing. Hand washing was one of several devout practices that Jews of Jesus’ time used to express their faith in God. In the Catholic tradition, something similar would be the sign of the cross: a ritual gesture that expresses devotion and faith. So handwashing in itself, like the sign of the cross, was a good thing. And Jesus knew it. He argues against the Pharisees, not because they wash their hands, but because they focus on handwashing to the exclusion of more important things.
So Jesus’ argument is really one of proportion. He wants people of faith to understand what is important in their faith and what is more important. This is a useful lesson for us because oftentimes, like the Pharisees, we can fixate on a particular good thing that is not the most valuable thing. In the complex world in which we live, our choices are not always between something bad and something good, but oftentimes between something good and something better. Therefore it is important for us to realize what is the greater value and let it guide us.
We can see this in family life. We all want the people in our families to make wise decisions: whom to marry, where to work, how to use our money. Making wise decisions is a good thing. But it is not the only good thing. It is also a good thing that the members of a family accept one another unconditionally, whether they make foolish decisions or wise ones. So making wise decisions is a good thing and accepting one another unconditionally is a good thing. Which is the more important good thing? Knowing the answer to that will help us live family life well.
We can also see this in the national debate over immigration. As you listen to people talk about this issue, time and again they emphasize the security of our borders. Now, having secure borders is a good thing. A country cannot protect itself without secure borders. But it is not the only good thing. Another good thing is to welcome the stranger. In the teaching of Jesus, this is one of the values that will determine our judgment on the last day. So securing our borders is a good thing, and welcoming the stranger is a good thing. Which is the more important good thing? Knowing the answer to that question will help us devise a sound immigration policy.
Using our natural resources to make a profit is a good thing. It provides jobs and livelihood for many. But it is not the only good thing. Protecting our air and our water from pollution so they might continue to give life to us all is also a good thing. Which is the greater good thing? Knowing the answer to that question will help us build a better world.
Now, of course, the ideal is always to do all the good things that we can—to wash our hands as well as to serve with love and mercy, to make the sign of the cross as well as to feed the poor. But in this complex world in which we live, it is essential that we discover the right proportion. If we do not, we could fixate on one good thing and ignore a more important thing. If that were to happen to us, then we run the risk of falling under the criticism of Isaiah in today’s gospel. We could hear God say to us, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Not With the Lips But With the Heart
September 2, 2018
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Mark Twain was always suspicious of overly pious Christians. One day at a dinner party a man cornered Twain and said, “Before I die, I am going to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When I arrive, I will climb Mount Sinai, and from the very top I will boldly proclaim the Ten Commandments.” Twain replied, “I have a better idea. Why don’t you stay right here at home and obey them.” Twain’s sarcastic remark actually echoes a theme in today’s readings, a theme that plays out the difference between talking and doing. The letter to James says, “Be doers of the word, not only hearers.” And Jesus uses the prophet Isaiah in today’s gospel to register his complaint: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus’ words certainly apply to us, because we gather every week to honor God with our lips. We confess our sins. We respond, “Thanks be to God.” We sing, “Holy, holy, holy.” We say, “Amen” as we receive the body and blood of Christ. But what we say with our lips is intended to change our hearts. Our words are meant to lead to actions that will build God’s kingdom.
We say that we love our spouse, but when was the last time that we showed that love in action beyond a simple kiss as we walk out the door? We say that we love our children, but how often have we taken time to think what a particular son or daughter needs and how we can show care and guidance? We say that we love our country, but are we willing to become involved in the political process, to assure that the candidates that are elected are men and women of character and integrity? We say that we love our church, but are we willing to insist that our bishops be held accountable for the way that they handle child abuse among the clergy?
Words are important. But if words do not lead to actions, they become empty and valueless. Of course, the movement from words to action is often a difficult one. But here is the good news: our actions are not dependent only on our own courage and willpower. We believe that God works with us and through us as we act to make a difference in our world. The letter to James says, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted within you and is able to save your souls.” God’s word has been planted within us. It is our calling to welcome that word and to let it grow. The word which grows within us and the body and blood of Christ which we share have the power to change and empower us to become people who are wiser, more courageous, and more committed to doing God’s will.
So as we gather together today, let us open our hearts to receive the word that God has planted within us. Let us pray that God changes us as we approach the table of the Lord. In this way we may be able by God’s grace to worship God not only with our lips but with our hearts and be disciples not only in words but in actions—actions that make a difference in our lives and in our world.