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22nd Sunday in ordinary time: Irreligious religion

Today’s readings: Deuteronomy 4, 1-2.6-8; James 1, 17-18.21-22.27; Mark 7, 1-8.14-15.21-23.

A common issue in religion is the relationship between the law and individual conscience. To what extent is the law binding on one’s conscience, and to what extent can one feel bound by one’s own reasoning in conscience? For too long, our teaching on conscience was clear. But laws and rules were over-riding, reducing al­most to nil one’s freedom to decide in conscience.

Jesus is revolutionary precisely in this. Particularly in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, in line with an ancient prophetic tradition, puts the religion of the heart over that of exteriority and traditions which leaves no room for one’s intelligence and freedom. Today’s first reading highlights the fact that the purpose of religion in Israel’s life was to free people rather than to weigh them down with laws and traditions.

In the second reading, James reminds how easy it is to be deceived by putting religion over God’s word. With all the laws and traditions that make up religion, and that have been transmitted to us with absolutism, listening to God’s word remains the major source of personal discernment. James goes further to speak of “unspoilt religion”, which he defines as “coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”.

In a globalised world, we have become aware how much religion is a cultural phenomenon. Many religions are rooted in different cultures and carry the weight of cultural residues that accumulate with time and that often make it difficult to separate religion from culture.

Mark’s Jesus proposes to free people from the weight of stifling traditions that never lead to true worship. Jesus’ doctrine is revolutionary, it concerns mainly what makes our choices and behaviour authentic, coming from the heart. The battle of religion is to be fought in the territory of the heart, not elsewhere.

External laws, changed customs and new ethical codes can influence and determine the fabric of societies. But it is stability of the heart that religion seeks, not social stability that serves as a protectionist umbrella. In today’s gospel Jesus is critical of religion that mainly seeks to safeguard a social stability that can also alienate us from what makes us authentic.

In his gospel, Mark is quite polemical with the Pharisaic movement. He criticises their strict practice of ritual purity, insisting that in religion, im/purity concerns the heart rather than the body. In Jewish anthropology, and in today’s understanding of human behaviour, the heart is a person’s moral seat, and religion is about attitudes and internal disposition rather than about exterior practice and rituals.

Jesus’ attack, referring to the prophet Isaiah, reiterates that in their hearts the Pharisees were alienated from God’s justice. In short, religion can be very irreligious. Of course, the story does not stop with the Pharisees’ religion. Even today the same gospel should sound the alarm on so much that we perpetuate in our religion. It is easy to substitute God with traditions that we uphold as the essence of religion.

People can be so alienated from what religion should lead to. When priority is given to external practice, we lose touch with what sustains or distorts a living relationship with God. That is why so many today perceive, and rightly so, a distinction between the God of faith and the gods of our religion.

Today’s Scriptures should provoke serious questions on the future of religion in our lives and about the right of future generations to receive from us a tradition of wisdom rather than traditions that are a cultural and social patrimony. Reading today’s Scriptures should make us reflect on whether our liturgies truly make us pray; whether our baroque churches can truly serve as sacred spaces where God is perceived and listened to; whether the way we promote and live our religion is helping us connect more with ourselves rather than leaving us alienated from what ultimately makes us whole.

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