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Bible Reflections View Comments

Rules, Rituals, and Relationships
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, September 2, 2012
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A friend who grew up in an extended farm family tells the story of a Sunday morning when his uncle and cousins were leaving for church and their neighbor had an emergency involving a broken fence and escaping cows. His uncle’s response was, “We can’t help you right now. We have to go to Mass.” Their fear of committing a mortal sin by missing Mass that day led them to ignore the needs of their neighbor, who lost thirteen cows that day.

 Any society, religious or secular, needs rules to survive and to thrive. But when the rules become ends in themselves, more important than the people involved, they can do more harm than good. Religious rules and rituals can easily cross a line to something akin to magical gestures. Something deep-seated in the human psyche seems to hearken back to primitive beliefs that a god could be controlled by an exact series of words and gestures.

The early Hebrews were surrounded by cultures who relied on ritual to placate distant gods. The covenant with the one God was a far different thing, an intimate relationship between God and the people of Israel. Moses’s exhortation to the people to follow the Lord’s commands is clearly rooted in this covenant relationship. The commandments flow out of and nurture that relationship. If we are in right relationship with God, we will also be in right relationship with one another.

By the time of Jesus, Moses’s command to carefully observe the commandment had been distorted into restrictive rules and rubrics. This in spite of Moses telling them not to add to the commandments he was giving them. Rabbis over the centuries referred to this as “putting a fence around the Torah.” By observing a growing number of rituals in order to avoid small sins, the people were less likely to commit any major sin against the commandments.

The intention here is certainly a worthy one. We see something of it in Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, when, for example, he counsels against anger as a way of avoiding murder. But too often the minor rules had more to do with merely external gestures than with a change of heart.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that a clean heart is more important than clean hands. And he reminds them that Isaiah and the other prophets warned against claiming divine authority for merely human rules and precepts. Keeping a strict set of rules can be far easier than dealing with the messiness inevitable in human life and relationships. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to make decisions, we don’t have to take any personal responsibility for consequences. We rely on someone else telling us, “Do this. Don’t do that.”

Our Catholic culture has certainly gone through periods of strict rulekeeping through the centuries. But when those rules allow us to hold ourselves apart from the suffering of another person, we have to ask ourselves if this is what Jesus intended. At the heart of the Gospel message is the command to love God and neighbor. No rule or ritual is more important than that. We need to keep this in mind when faced with difficult decisions in our own lives.


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Joan of Arc: 
		<p>Burned at the stake as a heretic after a politically-motivated trial, Joan was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.</p>
		<p>Born of a fairly well-to-do peasant couple in Domremy-Greux (southeast of Paris), Joan was only 12 when she experienced a vision and heard voices that she later identified as Sts. Michael the Archangel, Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch.</p>
		<p>During the Hundred Years War, she led French troops against the English and recaptured the cities of Orléans and Troyes. This enabled Charles VII to be crowned as king in Reims in 1429. Captured near Compiegne the following year, she was sold to the English and placed on trial for heresy and witchcraft. Professors at the University of Paris supported Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvis, the judge at her trial; Cardinal Henry Beaufort of Winchester, England, participated in the questioning of Joan in prison. In the end, she was condemned for wearing men's clothes. The English resented France's military success–to which Joan contributed. </p>
		<p>On this day in 1431, she was burned at the stake in Rouen, and her ashes were scattered in the Seine River. A second Church trial 25 years later nullified the earlier verdict, which was reached under political pressure.</p>
		<p>Remembered by most people for her military exploits, Joan had a great love for the sacraments, which strengthened her compassion toward the poor. Popular devotion to her increased greatly in 19th-century France and later among French soldiers during World War I. Theologian George Tavard writes that her life "offers a perfect example of the conjunction of contemplation and action" because her spiritual insight is that there should be a "unity of heaven and earth."</p>
		<p>Joan of Arc has been the subject of many books, plays, operas, and movies. </p>
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