Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Saturday After Ash Wednesday

A group of Pharisees, with some doctors of the law who had come from Jerusalem, met him and noticed that some of his disciples were eating their food with 'defiled' hands - in other words, without washing them. (For the Pharisees and the Jews in general never eat without washing their hands, in obedience to an old-established tradition; and on coming from the market-place they never eat without first washing. And there are many other points on which they have a traditional rule to maintain, for example, washing of cups and jugs and copper bowls.) Accordingly, these Pharisees and the lawyers asked him, 'Why do your disciples not conform to the ancient tradition, but eat their food with defiled hands?' He answered, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites in these words: 'This people pays me lip-service, but their heart is far from me: their worship of me is in vain, for they teach as doctrines the commandments of men.' You neglect the commandment of God, in order to maintain the tradition of men." Mark 7:1-8

These high-hatted men in the picture above are seen in Piero Pasolini's 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. They are the investigative Pharisees and doctors of the law who have come from Jerusalem. Reports have reached their ears in headquarters: Is Jesus teaching heresy? Is he following the rules? Is he faithful to the highest religious authority? They are not friends. We will see them again as we get closer to the Good Friday story.  

Pasolini was an atheist, but when he read the four gospels he fell in love with the idea of faithfully presenting Matthew's account in film. Here he has given the Pharisees ridiculously tall and flamboyant hats to wear as a sign that some religious characters can have a sense of themselves that's blown way out of proportion - religious people who have become silly in their power-quest. Every religion has its variety. Someone has referred to them as the brain police. Of course, they can be found outside religion as well.

Then we notice this long parenthesis filling us in on Jewish purification rituals and regulations. But the evangelist is painting with a very broad brush because it's simply not true when he says, "and the Jews in general..." Some Jews followed all these rules and some do today, but it's incorrect to speak so generally. Is the evangelist trying to prejudice his readers? I hope not. Let's just give him the benefit of the doubt.

But often we say things about other people that are simply not so. We generalize and stereotype. We observe it often in the things politicians say. Sometimes our information is sketchy, but we speak as if we were experts. Sometimes we say things that we know aren't true, but we hope no one will realize our inaccuracy. Often times in conversation we could do with a fact check.

At any rate, these brain police are onto Jesus because his disciples apparently don't do the hand washing that I suppose at least they practice. Mind you, Judaism doesn't have a corner on this kind of seemingly petty ritual observance. Before the 1960's all religious orders kept customs books laying out the observances of religious minutiae: how to put the habit on, how to eat certain foods, required permissions, depths of various bows in chapel, regulations about speaking and touching and the pecking order, etc. "Keep the rule and the rule will keep you," so it was said. 

I went to a priest workshop once to learn the traditional Latin Mass which leaves not one second of the ritual unregulated. I gave it up after one brain police lady, who was in attendance at the Mass one morning, commented disapprovingly that the priest made the mistake of stepping up to the altar with his left foot first instead of his right. And at the lunch table with visiting lay people, one man started an argument that I was perhaps not validly ordained because my ordination took place using the New Rite of Ordination in 1979. 

Notice too that Jesus calls these religious lawyers hypocrites, which is a Greek word that means actor: perfecting appearances, the doing of exterior religious things with no interior awareness or heart connection. I don't like the current use of the word orthodox in Catholic circles: "We're an orthodox order of nuns." "This is an orthodox Catholic university." "Our company sells orthodox Catholic literature." "That's an orthodox diocese with an orthodox bishop and an orthodox seminary." Oh my! The word orthodox means right teaching - as if to say: "We're right; you're wrong." I find it to be a contentious word (capital O or small o) and it has nothing to do with heart.

AA warns the people who propose to follow the Twelve Steps: don't just talk the talk. Jesus knows these Pharisee guys won't believe a word he says, so he pulls out the big guns and quotes the Prophet Isaiah: "This people pays me lip-service, but their heart is far from me..." It is a warning for all time: Religion is about the heart or its about nothing, and (here it comes) the heart has its reasons that reason knows not.


  1. Every religion has their extremists and that is where things get dangerous. Any one group that exerts authority over another, or who takes the road of righteousness causes problems for everyone one else. The root of all religion should be the heart and nothing less.

  2. There is a lot to meditate on in this one post. Don't just talk the talk; more people, especially those that lead us, should pay these words more careful attention.

  3. I find it so amazing when an atheist puts their spin on religion. Their insights are so different and many times enlightening.

  4. Yes, the heart. And we fall away from it over and over and over again. Simply, sometimes it's easier to follow rules than the heart. How many times I've cried out, 'just tell me what to do!'. But as always, God is good. He lets me think and pray and then I can make a more informed and heartfelt decision. Many times it's too late but we can go back and start again. That's faith.