Gospel reflection for Aug. 29, 2021 – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Although we have been freed from the constraints of the Mosaic Law through the Paschal events, and set on course to live in accord with the precepts of faith and to enter in to the great mysteries of the Sacraments, we still manage to bog ourselves down with traditions. Some of these rituals are pietistic while others take on a deeper psychological meaning. This tendency, which is reflective of our propensity to sin, has been exaggerated over the past few decades in reaction to social development, and technological progress. It boils down to a desire to prefer form over substance. Psychologists recognize this affliction, and its accompanying narcissistic tendencies, as a compelling force behind a surge in mental health issues, as well as in social disconnect and division.

The Jews at the time of Jesus concerned themselves about minutiae in all aspects of life. The possibility of offending God or committing a grave sin against the interpretation of Mosaic Law was reality in the lives of many people. For those who are scrupulous or suffer from what we today call obsessive-compulsive behaviors, can find within this framework both a solace and a source of great angst.

While there are certain habits, and unwritten rules of social etiquette, we react in negative ways if these niceties are not observed. When someone cuts line, doesn’t hold a door or drinks from the wrong water glass at a banquet table, we make judgments about them. As a society, we are increasingly divided over who is more patriotic than who judged on various external expressions and postures. In the end, though nothing greater is usually at stake than our own feelings.

Much of strife within the Church today is driven by this same desire to control, or to be controlled in aspects of life that have little or even nothing to do with the eternal questions. However, much as at the time of Jesus, there is this tendency to exaggerate the importance of various traditions, pious practices, and legalistic interpretations and to take them to the level of eternal matters.

It is not just within the Church that we see this movement; in some ways the Church seems to be more a victim of this tendency and not its source. The woke movement, antifa, and the various right and left wing extreme reactionary movements similarly hyperbolize, scare and take the consequences of not adhering to their ideologies as having apocalyptic consequences.

Jesus calls his disciples to a moderation of life and to a more balanced expression of faith. There are indeed teachings that are of monumental and eternal significance, but most of what we hold to in our own personal spirituality or pietistic ideologies are likely not among them.

Five-hundred years ago, Martin Luther and other members of the reform movements within, and then outside of the Church, arose due to the exaggeration of various traditions which then led to abuses caused by those traditions. Now, we see some resurgence of traditions that form the basis of personal spirituality for many people. Having a prayerful routine and various devotions are of great spiritual benefit. We set aside certain times of the day for prayer and give due homage to God and honor to the saints. Unfortunately, when we become so obsessed by the routines then it is the routine itself that becomes most important. Jesus, the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph nor any of the host of heaven, place unreasonable demands on us or reject us if we haven’t completed some formulary or routine of prayer that is largely of our own making.

It is uncertainty, fear and perhaps to some extent a lack of faith that drives us into ritualism. While many religious cultural, familial and even personal traditions can enhance our expression and experience of faith, they should never be an end in themselves, rather, they always point us to the only tradition that matters for eternity: the faithful celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments.

Though many such pious practices are not harmful at times they can become divisive to the community and indeed bring harm to the Body of Christ. When we confuse Tradition with traditions, and place them on the same level, we are ultimately diminishing the Word God and undermining the Church.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.