Focussing on the essentials

Al Cariño
August 31, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Once at the start of a kiddie class, a teacher told her pupils to close their eyes as they prayed aloud together. At the end of the prayer, one child said, "Ma'am, during the prayer, all the others did not close their eyes at all. I was the only one who did." We wonder how he ever found out! But what is to be noted here is the emphasis the child placed on the teacher's instruction rather than on act of praying itself -- on the external rather than the essential.

We should not be surprised if children put much regard to externals. After all, when they are told to do or refrain from doing certain things, they are not yet told why because that they are still "too young" to understand. But we adults acting in the same way. This is specially true regarding what are often called traditions which include some of our "pamahiin" (superstitious beliefs). For example, young couples do not schedule their weddings in February because it has fewer days. Neither do they do so when the date of the calendar points downwards. Though these have no bearing on the success or failure of their marriage, they hang on to them "just in case". Moreover, they spend hours as to the appearance and content of their wedding invitation, how many will be invited, who will be included in the entourage, etc. We wonder though whether they have spent as much time and attention as to why they are going into marriage, namely, that at the heart of marriage is the heart itself -- that it is full of good will, generosity and caring; that it is so full of love that the couple is willing to commit one's self to the other for life. This is what is essential in marriage. The rest are just trimmings.

In the gospel reading (Mk. 7:1-8,14-15,21-23), we see the Scribes and Pharisees observed how the disciples of Jesus, tired and hungry from their labors, ate without washing their hands first and disregarded other Jewish practices. So they asked Jesus, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?"

Jesus, seeing how their traditions have dulled their spiritual values and priorities, responded, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "These people pays me lip service, but their heart is far from me.'" What Jesus was telling them in effect was: "Focus on the essentials." As one writer has aptly said, "In absolutizing the minutiae of the law, the Pharisees had insulated themselves against the 'bread of life,' the cups and dishes rather than the food."

How did this sad development come about? The Law that Moses gave to the Chosen People originated from their experience of God's nearness and presence during their wandering in the desert: they actually experienced Him being involved in their day-to-day life. For example, when they were hungry, He sent them manna; when they were thirsty, He made water flow from a rock by making Moses strike it with his staff. This experience of the nearness of God was the inspiration underlying the Law. And to preserve its purity, Moses ordered the people, not to "add nor subtract from it" (Deut. 4:2).

But over the centuries, the powerful experience of God became just a memory. No wonder the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' time felt free to add all kinds of details to the Law contrary to the order of Moses. Not only that, they also made them as binding as the Mosaic Law, declaring those who did not observe them "unclean." In face of this, Jesus told them, "You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions!"

The same will happen to us when we put more emphasis on the trappings of our faith rather than on its spirit. Then we will be so bound by externals that we forget the essentials. Then we will focus on the evil others do rather than what is good in them; on what we see them do rather than on their motive in doing so. Closer to home, we find ourselves doing what will impress others and thus make them think well of us rather than do what God wants and thus make Him be pleased with us.

Jesus told the Scribes and Pharisees what made a person impure or "unclean": "Nothing that enters a man from outside can make him impure; that which comes out of him and only that, constitutes impurity." He condemns a religion of outward appearances. He rejects pious display. The word he used for this was "hypocrisy" and we know that Jesus had no kind words for hypocrites. Certainly, Jesus does not want us to be counted among them. Rather, He wants us to act from a heart animated with faith and love and to serve Him and people in sincerity and truth. Thus and lest Jesus says of us as He did of the Scribes and Pharisees, "You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions," let our every act proceed from a love- and faith-inspired code of conduct which springs from the depths of our heart.