When What Matters Isn’t What Matters

13 October 2009 Tuesday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 1, 16-25; Psalm 19; Luke 11, 37-41

It is not uncommon to hear conversations or interjections from church personnel, administration, or government about the minutest mistakes they committed or neglected in the liturgy. Seminarians would talk about the wrong liturgical color or a misstep that ruined what could have been a perfect choreography at mass. Mother Butler members would cry over wrong arrangements of flowers or the incorrect size of the vestments they gave to the presider. Or some would be too scrupulous to even mathematically count how many tiny particles from the consecrated hosts that could have flown by a slight wisp of wind; too small to the naked eye. Some liturgists would have a fit when the presider neglects to extend his arms at points when they have to according to the rubrics. They find it hard to believe that God is far beyond these details. And all of them would find all these much much graver than the sins they actually commit against charity to one’s neighbors.

But this is not a particularly modern neurosis. During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were concerned about the details of the Ceremonial Law. In the Gospel today, they pointed out to Jesus the neglect of the disciples who did not wash before eating (which modern science and ethics tell us to be preventive and thus important). But the Pharisees’ concern at that time (the input of science today was inexistent) was not so much the act of washing one’s hands, but omitting the details of the ceremonial law. Neglecting these ceremonies was considered a grave sin. Thus, many of the devout Jew would focus on the details. To illustrate: there are vessels and a prescribed amount of water for washing; there is a way to wash one’s hands like the water should flow first from the fingertips to the wrist, and then the palms will be washed by rubbing the fist of the other into it. And then, water again will be poured from the wrist to the fingertips. Omit them, you automatically incur a mortal sin.

The contention of Jesus is simple: if they can be as meticulous with the details and particulars of cleansing their hearts as the washing of their hands, they would be better persons. If we could be as concerned about the uncleanliness of our interior life as we are concerned about the arrangements of the flowers on the alter, we could have been better Christians. We could have been greater parish administrators if we don’t forget the great realities of the Christian life. There are more things to be worried about that are more essential than the trivialities of liturgical rubrics — though important in liturgy, they do not render a person unfit if they commit a mistake — compared to one’s apathy towards socio-economic issues. It’s like having a parish priest who practically lives in his room, but do not have the heart to empathize with the people in his community. He would rather renovate the church, than build a community by being amiable himself.

The tragedy as Jesus points out is flipping the values, making the trivial matter, than what really matters. In an environment that supports and encourages hierarchy, the tendency of people “under them” is to show empty and pretentious reverence. This behavior is often shown out of fear to those who coax them because of their authority, than respect rendered to those who earned it. During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees would be pleased if they sit on presidential chairs that is seen by many people; or greeted with flattery in public even if they don’t deserve it. Those who are “inferiors” (compared to the superiors of the hierarchy) would exhibit external behavior that is pleasing, going through the correct motions at the appropriate time (especially if the boss is around), and think that because they have done a good show, they are pleasing to the eyes of God. But wait: when the cat is away, as we all say, the mice will play. The trouble is, we see them play, but we don’t do anything at all. To notify the cat is often the best measure. Or if the cat is always away dining, we might have to decide to find another cat. A much, much better cat.

The externals are also important since they should, in honesty, validate our internal environment. But they are not as important as the naked truth.

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