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  • Fr. John Jennings

Our Sacred Stories - Living as Church: Context, Customs and Change

In some cities across Canada, until very recently there were city by-laws which demanded that hotels and inns provide stabling facilities for the horses of their guests. In its time, this by-law was a response to the needs of the time, a way of offering hospitality to guests. The by-law remained on the books even though virtually no guest came to the hotel on a horse.

It is a very human trait to resist change or at the very least, be uncomfortable with it. Humanly speaking, change is a challenge for us. The world develops, circumstances change and at times we do not keep up with the change. This is something of what we see Jesus working against with the Pharisees in Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

The fundamental call of Jewish faith was quite simple, to love God and to love neighbour. This is the basic tradition of Judaism. As time passed and life evolved, the people of the Old Testament developed other traditions, customs and practices which adapted this basic or fundamental tradition to particular circumstances of life. In this way the many ritual laws and practices of Judaism were developed – e.g. the washing of hands, cups, pots, and bronze kettles as well as many other ritual laws.

As these laws developed they made sense. They had a connection with the core tradition as a way of expressing honour to God and respect for neighbour. But as life and circumstances changed the ritual laws continued even though the connection with the basic or core tradition was not longer evident. The ritual laws took on a life of their own and even obscured the core tradition. Meticulously saying the right words and performing the correct actions appeared as more important than the loving, communal action of the People of God.

This was the challenge faced by Jesus when he encountered the Pharisees – “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” The Pharisees were not bad folk. In fact they were zealous and committed followers of the Law. But in their zeal they forgot the core tradition, or at the very least obscured it. Jesus’ words and actions were a call to return to the core tradition of loving God and neighbour. The ritual laws got in the way of seeing this fundamental call. Lip service to the Law got in the way of living God’s call from the heart.

Living the core of God’s plan with the heart is what discipleship to Jesus is all about. This is who we are as Church. Being Church, living as disciples is a matter of the heart and the simple double commandment of love God and love neighbour. Here is the challenge - how we love evolves and changes over time as our world and our circumstances change. The laws, rules and rituals are simple ways of responding in particular times and are subject to change. The heart is the constant in discipleship and in being Church.

John Jennings

22nd Sunday Ordinary Time

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