The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
((Dt 4:1-2, 6-8, Ja 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27, Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23))
There is something in the human spirit that yearns for routine, for predictability, for a sense of control of one’s surroundings and life. Yesterday, in our refectory book, THE BORDER, by Erika Fatland, we heard Andrei Sannikov of Belarus say,
Prison was terrible. They have so many draconian methods for breaking people’s spirit. . . . They did what they could to break our routines. For people who have never been in prison, it is hard to understand, but routines are really important in prison. It is all about the detail. They confiscated my cup, for example. I was moved from cell to cell, and was constantly being sent to new prisons and labour colonies. They took away what little control I had.
Unpredictability and lack of a sense of the familiar can be hard on people’s nerves. That’s why a code of laws, and rules and customs helps keep things more orderly and peaceful. Of course, there has to be a sense of balance, as we saw in our last community discussion on customs. Previously, our Cistercian Order perhaps had too many rules and regulations and customs. Maybe things were a little too spelled-out. But there’s always the danger of the pendulum swinging too far the other way.
I read in an online article this past week–I think it might have been the Epoch Times–that half a million people are expected to flee across the borders of Afghanistan. They know what they can expect from a government where the Taliban is in control: Not enough predictability, not enough order and just laws, too much left up to the whims of someone on the other end of a machine gun.
And we yearn for that dependability and changelessness in our concept of God. In our second reading today from the Letter of James we heard God being described as, “. . . the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.” To think of God as being immutable is soothing. The Greek gods and those of the other peoples surrounding the Israelites were more unpredictable, like human beings. They could flare up in a bad mood and had to be placated.
Similarly, the Catholic Church has a lot of dogmas and doctrines and rules. There is a sense of comfort when we expect those things to remain the way they are. And it’s disturbing when the ground starts moving and we get the impression everything is up for grabs. One pope makes decisions and starts taking us in this direction, for example the Latin Mass, and then another pope comes along and reverses those decisions and starts taking us in the opposite direction. The Church is a living institution, so there has to be some change and growth, but it has to be balanced with continuity and a reassuring sense that we can rely on some things always being there.
Of course, another element in this equation is the fact that there is a whole range of personality types among people. Some people love rules and regulations and structure more than others. In the Myers-Briggs test there was “J” and “P”, which stood for the personality types “Judging” and “Perceiving”. Those who lean toward judging prefer structure and firm decisions. People who lean toward perceiving are more open, flexible, and adaptable. So, what might feel like “balance” for one person doesn’t necessarily feel like “balance” to someone else. All good regulations have to find a happy medium where people don’t feel stifled, on the one hand, or adrift, on the other.
When you think of it, it is really quite remarkable that the Israelite people had such a detailed and balanced code of law so early on and that it has been preserved in writing to this day. In our first reading we heard Moses speaking 3,300 years ago about the statutes and decrees he was presenting to the people: “Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’ . . . what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
While Moses would have presumably been giving this speech around the year 1300 BC, the Code of Hammurabi came into existence in approximately 1771 BC in Babylon. Hammurabi’s lasting contribution to western society was his set of laws written on twelve stones and displayed publicly for all to see, the most common being “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” But even earlier than this, dating all the way back to the 21st century BC, we have a code of conduct created by the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu of the city of Ur. This all goes to show that human beings have an innate need for law and order and thrive best when things are structured and predictable. I am told that even babies and children tend to turn out less neurotic when things happen at the same time everyday and there is a schedule and routine. Households with an alcoholic parent, by contrast, tend to feature unpredictability and instability. You just never know from one moment to the next, and that’s unsettling.
Then there is the temptation to get caught up in the details and miss the substance and purpose of the rules and laws. That’s the gist of our gospel selection today. Jesus is chiding the Pharisees for finding fault with his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. Instead of nitpicking about “the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds,” keep the focus on the things that really matter. It’s not what goes into the mouth that can defile but what comes out from within. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Similarly, our second reading exhorted us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
May we always appreciate the structure and predictability of our monastic routine, and not fritter away the peaceful atmosphere it provides on things of no lasting value.