Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Behind every law, there’s some sort of principle at work. For example: driving safely is a principle. But not everyone has the same idea of what that means. And so, in practice regulations are needed to define what driving safely means for everyone.
You might see a speed limit sign of 25 miles-per-hour. Driving safely is the principle; driving 25 miles-per-hour, the practice.
There’s nothing magical about that number. 25 miles-per-hour isn’t inherently safe in itself.
It’s just that at certain places, when we consider factors like the average reaction time of most drivers, the stopping capability of modern vehicles, minimum sight distances, etc., 25 miles-per-hour has been deemed safe in some places.
But that’s not always the case. When roads are widened, or lanes added, or cars become safer, or when the adjacent infrastructure changes; the speed limit may increase. Or while there’s construction in the area, the speed limit might decrease.
This doesn't betray some sort of inconstancy, because the principle doesn’t change, though practices might. Principles and practices need each other. Without practice, principles are no more than good intentions. And without principles, practices can become rigid, nonsensical, outdated, and even superstitious at the extreme.
That seems to be the case in our gospel passage today. As we heard, certain Pharisees and scribes challenged Jesus after observing that a few of his disciples ate their meals with “unclean, that is, unwashed, hands,” saying, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders…?”
To which, Jesus responds: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.
Now, to be clear, Jesus does not condemn law or tradition. After all, elsewhere Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For amen, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
It’s not the Law that Jesus condemned, but the interpretation of it by the scribes and Pharisees. The Law was received from God through Moses. But the practice of the Law had been corrupted over time, to the point where the practice even contradicted the principle. And Jesus calls them out on it: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
This danger of divorcing practice from principle is something we wrestle with still today, and not only in Church matters. Whether we’re talking about foreign policy, local politics, health-related mandates, school matters, or any other practices, it’s necessary to honestly and regularly evaluate them in light of their guiding principles. What are the ends we’re seeking? Why do we seek them? And do these practices get us there?
But when clarity is absent and guiding principles seem lacking, when the complexity of intertwining principles isn’t appreciated, it’s no wonder the practices we live by can seem confused and even contradictory at times. Look at everything that’s happening in the world today. What are the principles that guide us as a society? What principles guide us as one nation among many nations?
As a Church, both on the world stage and here locally, we also have our hands full. In every generation of disciples, it’s necessary to reflect upon the principles that guide our practices.
You’ve heard the old saying: The Church is in the world, but not of the world. Being in the world requires that our practices change, adapting to the world as the world changes. But our principles never change, because the Church is not of the world.
In our first reading today, Moses gives us a few things to consider.
Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you… Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations…”
The Israelites had so many practices for which they were responsible. But the reason (or principle) behind them (in our passage) was three-fold: First, their practices were how they remained in Covenant with God; second, their practices would gain them possession of the Promised Land; and finally, through their practices, they would give witness to the surrounding nations.
Likewise, whatever we do as a Church should also respect those principles. Whatever pastoral plans we devise, whatever safety measures we institute, whatever policies we introduce—those practices only have value as long as they: keep us in Covenant with God, help us take possession of our eternal home, and finally, show to the world that we are Christians, giving witness to the world that Jesus Christ lives, and will come again in glory.
That’s the litmus test. Whatever we do as a Church must honor the Covenant, help us get to heaven, and give witness to our relationship to God in Christ. May God bless you.
Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple (circa 1618): Valentine de Boulogne (1591-1632), Public Domain