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Bible Reflections View Comments

Rules, Rituals, and Relationships
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, September 2, 2012
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A friend who grew up in an extended farm family tells the story of a Sunday morning when his uncle and cousins were leaving for church and their neighbor had an emergency involving a broken fence and escaping cows. His uncle’s response was, “We can’t help you right now. We have to go to Mass.” Their fear of committing a mortal sin by missing Mass that day led them to ignore the needs of their neighbor, who lost thirteen cows that day.

 Any society, religious or secular, needs rules to survive and to thrive. But when the rules become ends in themselves, more important than the people involved, they can do more harm than good. Religious rules and rituals can easily cross a line to something akin to magical gestures. Something deep-seated in the human psyche seems to hearken back to primitive beliefs that a god could be controlled by an exact series of words and gestures.

The early Hebrews were surrounded by cultures who relied on ritual to placate distant gods. The covenant with the one God was a far different thing, an intimate relationship between God and the people of Israel. Moses’s exhortation to the people to follow the Lord’s commands is clearly rooted in this covenant relationship. The commandments flow out of and nurture that relationship. If we are in right relationship with God, we will also be in right relationship with one another.

By the time of Jesus, Moses’s command to carefully observe the commandment had been distorted into restrictive rules and rubrics. This in spite of Moses telling them not to add to the commandments he was giving them. Rabbis over the centuries referred to this as “putting a fence around the Torah.” By observing a growing number of rituals in order to avoid small sins, the people were less likely to commit any major sin against the commandments.

The intention here is certainly a worthy one. We see something of it in Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, when, for example, he counsels against anger as a way of avoiding murder. But too often the minor rules had more to do with merely external gestures than with a change of heart.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that a clean heart is more important than clean hands. And he reminds them that Isaiah and the other prophets warned against claiming divine authority for merely human rules and precepts. Keeping a strict set of rules can be far easier than dealing with the messiness inevitable in human life and relationships. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to make decisions, we don’t have to take any personal responsibility for consequences. We rely on someone else telling us, “Do this. Don’t do that.”

Our Catholic culture has certainly gone through periods of strict rulekeeping through the centuries. But when those rules allow us to hold ourselves apart from the suffering of another person, we have to ask ourselves if this is what Jesus intended. At the heart of the Gospel message is the command to love God and neighbor. No rule or ritual is more important than that. We need to keep this in mind when faced with difficult decisions in our own lives.


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Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions: Andrew Dung-Lac was one of 117 people martyred in Vietnam between 1820 and 1862. Members of this group were beatified on four different occasions between 1900 and 1951. All were canonized by St. John Paul II. 
<p>Christianity came to Vietnam (then three separate kingdoms) through the Portuguese. Jesuits opened the first permanent mission at Da Nang in 1615. They ministered to Japanese Catholics who had been driven from Japan. </p><p>The king of one of the kingdoms banned all foreign missionaries and tried to make all Vietnamese deny their faith by trampling on a crucifix. Like the priest-holes in Ireland during English persecution, many hiding places were offered in homes of the faithful. </p><p>Severe persecutions were again launched three times in the 19th century. During the six decades after 1820, between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were killed or subjected to great hardship. Foreign missionaries martyred in the first wave included priests of the Paris Mission Society, and Spanish Dominican priests and tertiaries. </p><p>Persecution broke out again in 1847 when the emperor suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Christians of sympathizing with a rebellion led by of one of his sons. </p><p>The last of the martyrs were 17 laypersons, one of them a 9-year-old, executed in 1862. That year a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, but it did not stop all persecution. </p><p>By 1954 there were over a million and a half Catholics—about seven percent of the population—in the north. Buddhists represented about 60 percent. Persistent persecution forced some 670,000 Catholics to abandon lands, homes and possessions and flee to the south. In 1964, there were still 833,000 Catholics in the north, but many were in prison. In the south, Catholics were enjoying the first decade of religious freedom in centuries, their numbers swelled by refugees. </p><p>During the Vietnamese war, Catholics again suffered in the north, and again moved to the south in great numbers. Now the whole country is under Communist rule.</p> American Catholic Blog To replace our sins with virtues may seem like a daunting task, but fortunately we can follow the example of the saints who have 
successfully defeated these sins in their lifetimes. They provide us with a way forward so that we, too, can live holy, virtuous lives.

 
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