It is usual (I have just heard my parish sermon) to interpret the message of this Sunday’s readings as a plea to make sure we Catholics do not identify true or pure religion with merely external observances but make sure it is something of the heart – a love of God and neighbour. This message is enhanced if we set it against the universalist, inclusive perspective provided by the experience of interfaith dialogue and our understanding of the notion of “dialogue”. God is working wherever religion strains to see that behind its traditions and customs there stands a call to transcendence and largeness of heart.
Deuteronomy clearly describes the reasons for the apparent arbitrary choice of the people of Israel as special partners in the Divine-human dialogue. It is so that they will be a sign to all nations (everyone) that God is near to all who see that law and custom can open the heart to the divine. Hence they will say “What nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God.” Observe the law – not just because it is a matter of obedience but a way to show to all peoples the wisdom and understanding which true religion brings. God’s chosen people are chosen not for their own sake but as a vehicle to illustrate God’s wish to include all in the dialogue of loving kindness. Too often we inherit unconsciously the idea of choice as an exclusory device – Israel / Church / Christians chosen – all other nations / Churches / religions excluded. Whatever might have been the mind set which developed – it is our experience today that the Holy Spirit of God chooses so that all may be chosen – choice is a path to inclusion not exclusion. All humanity lies at the end of the Deuteronomy road and God wishes to be near to all peoples.
James punches home the same message in the light of the dawning brilliance of the early community’s experience of Christ who has revealed the perfection of the Father. So he says “he made us his children by the message of the truth.” Why? “So that we should be a sort of first-fruits of ALL that he had created.” No clearer justification could there by for regarding the Church as defined by its mission. Fruits are first which herald second, third and forth fruits. This is usually interpreted as the need for the Church to convert others to its first-fruit basket. But it also might mean that the Church must witness to the truth and holiness to be found elsewhere – since God wants there to be a myriad baskets of fruit all over the place.
James goes on to describe the need for “pure, unspoilt religion”- it is not in rubric or custom or law – but in coming to the help of orphans and widows. This true religion is to be found in all religions – it is the common invitation in them all to transcend law, rubric, custom which Jesus issued to the fellow religionists of his own day.
Mark sets the scene for Jesus to utter the universal truth, applicable to all religions: “Listen to me all of you and understand (Is Mark wanting to stress the uncompromising nature of Jesus’ words?) Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean.” He then lists the many ways in which all humanity can share in evil. As there is a inclusivity in human flowering and fulfilment, so we all share a solidarity in our own sinfulness.
It is eventually enervating and a distortion if we routinely and by habit read the Scriptures through our closet Christian Church spectacles. We lose the broad and rich brilliance of the meaning if we too quickly domesticate its messages. More dangerously we confine the work of God to our own particular club and lose the uplifting inspiration which comes from the realisation that the Holy Spirit of God is at work wherever there are people who seek truth and holiness – to find pure religion, pure humanity. This is the backdrop against which we need to set our experience of the Christian community. God works everywhere and his grace is not confined to the humble followers of His Son. It is the task of those few whose God has come near to in Christ to confirm and ratify the inclusive dialogue which God has with the whole of humanity. This vision, not the false oppositional one sometimes espoused by Churchmen (and it is men mainly) is the one to inspire us. The way forward is not an “either / or” but a “both / and”. God wants everyone as partners in the dialogue of love. Christ prompts Christians who have been “chosen” (through no merit of theirs) to witness to and ratify, affirm and celebrate the work of the Spirit of His Father wherever it is found – in all peoples, cultures, religions, nations. That is the reason they have been “chosen”. Wherever Christianity or the Church looses a grasp on this reality, it becomes dysfunctional. So if we have a Church tainted by abuse of power, clericalism, child abuse, its cover up, sexism, denial of the equality of women, apparently at ease with wealth, caught up in travail about the language or shapes of its liturgical worship or customary traditions, marked by pietism and an inward-looking self regard – then this is a denial of its true mission – to be a sign and an encouragement to all that God is dying (has died and conquered death) to talk to us – to have all of us as partners in an affirmation of all that is good, holy and true.
There can be no more effective bloc to true religion (love of God and neighbour) than false religion. No secularism or ideology or nation can so effectively hamper the work of the Spirit of God as a religion reduced to anything less than purity of heart. Paradoxically that is why some are persuaded by those who love them, to keep up their active membership of the Church and why they agree to do so with enthusiasm. Despite all the ills which beset the church – we can equal them in my own stumbling following of Christ! We need the solidarity of the sinners next to us. We have nowhere else to go Lord – in the knowledge that God is mercy and forgiveness.