22nd Ordinary Sunday, Year B, 02.09.2018
Deut 4:1-2, 6-8 / James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27 / Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The word “smart” is generally used to describe the intelligence level of some people.
When we say that a person is smart, it would mean that the person is clever, bright, intelligent, sharp-witted, quick-witted and maybe even shrewd and astute.
And if we say that a person looks smart, it means that the person is neat and well-dressed and maybe even stylish. But that’s only for the looks; it does not say much about the intelligence.
Nowadays the word “smart” is not just used to for people but also for devices and appliances.
So there is the smart phone, the smart TV, the smart car, and whatever they could make smart and smarter.
But no matter how smart things can become, they depend on one thing – that little chip that is called the CPU (central processing unit).
So smart devices or appliances can’t choose to do whatever they like. They can only do what they are programmed to do, and we can’t tell them to do otherwise.
So there is no point shouting at the computer or handphone or calling it “stupid”. They are only following their programmed instructions and they will stick to it.
In a way we can call them “robots of habit” – they will just do what they have been programmed to do and they won’t ask why. They can’t.
In today’s gospel passage, we heard the Pharisees and scribes asking Jesus why His disciples do not wash their hands before eating, and hence not respecting the tradition of the elders.
Jesus called them hypocrites, because they were only interested in regulations and traditions.
Putting it in another way, the scribes and Pharisees are like “robots of rituals”.
They have been programmed by human regulations and human traditions which they follow meticulously.
And these “robots of rituals” can also talk – they criticize others for not following the programmed regulations and traditions.
And the quotation from the prophet Isaiah sums up the crux of the matter : These people honour me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.
In other words, the scribes and Pharisees follow the regulations and traditions like “robots of rituals” and they can even criticize others for not doing so.
But the heart is not there. Just like robots have no heart; they only a CPU that runs the program.
While regulations and traditions have a useful purpose and rituals can help to sanctify, it is the heart that matters.
Because it is the heart that gives life to regulations and traditions and rituals, and then they become expressions of love.
Without the heart, we become like “robots of rituals” that only look smart but with no meaning or understanding.
There was once a monastery, where the abbot had a very punctual cat. Every morning, just before prayer, it would begin wonder around and distract the monks.
After a few weeks of this irritating habit, the abbot gave permission for the cat to be tied up. After a few years, the abbot died, and the cat outlived him, and the practice to tie up the cat continued. Eventually, the cat died.
The monks of the monastery, upon realising that there was no cat to tie up before prayer, brought in another cat, and so, every morning, the cat would be tied up so that prayers could go ahead.
The tradition continued and original cord that was used to tie up the cat was revered as a relic. Books on devotions and novenas were written on the spiritual significance of tying a cat before prayers.
Prayers to the “holy cat” were compiled and studied devotedly and pictures of the cat were being mass produced.
Just a story to show how absurd traditions can become and people can turn into “robots of rituals”.
And this can even happen at Mass. We come for Mass and a programme kicks in and we become “robots of rituals”.
We know when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, when to say “Amen” and when to take out some money to put into the collection bag.
But is there anything happening to our hearts? Do our hearts feel the love of God that makes us aware of the sinfulness that is lurking in our hearts?
Jesus pointed out what could be the sinfulness of our hearts – fornication, theft, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly.
All these make our hearts unclean but we come before the Lord in the Mass so that He can cleanse our hearts with the precious blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross.
When we want to be cleansed, then our hearts will change. We won’t be “robots of rituals”; we become God’s holy people and we offer a worship that is pleasing to God as we offer to God a humble and contrite heart.
We are not called to be smart. We are called to be holy so that we will be holy in our worship and in our relationships and we become truly human and we will also become truly loving.
Then we will be able to cleanse this world of sin and evil, and we will also help to turn robotic human beings into persons of love. (Fr. Stephen Yim)