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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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Joseph Benedict Cottolengo: In some ways Joseph exemplified St. Francis’ advice, "Let us begin to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have made little or no progress" (<i>1 Celano, </i>#103). 
<p>Joseph was the eldest of 12 children. Born in Piedmont, he was ordained for the Diocese of Turin in 1811. Frail health and difficulty in school were obstacles he overcame to reach ordination. </p><p>During Joseph’s lifetime Italy was torn by civil war while the poor and the sick suffered from neglect. Inspired by reading the life of St. Vincent de Paul and moved by the human suffering all around him, Joseph rented some rooms to nurse the sick of his parish and recruited local young women to serve as staff. </p><p>In 1832 at Voldocco, Joseph founded the House of Providence which served many different groups (the sick, the elderly, students, the mentally ill, the blind). All of this was financed by contributions. Popularly called "the University of Charity," this testimonial to God’s goodness was serving 8,000 people by the time of Joseph’s beatification in 1917. </p><p>To carry on his work, Joseph organized two religious communities, the Brothers of St. Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. Joseph, who had joined the Secular Franciscans as a young man, was canonized in 1934.</p> American Catholic Blog The image of God! This is what it means to be human! We are not just a bunch of cells randomly thrown together by some impersonal forces. Rather, we reflect an eternal God who knew us from before we were made and purposely called us into being.

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