Faith: Form and Tradition or Compassion and Justice?

At one point my Bible study group read Isaiah 58, and very shortly thereafter, in a daily lectionary reading, I read Mark 7: 1-13.  Both passages challenge the observance of proper religious practice forms instead of the true worship of the heart that includes justice.  Isaiah speaks of the people’s fasting while at the same time oppressing their workers and fighting with each other.  Mark speaks of the people following the tradition of the elders about washing their hands, yet dishonoring their parents.

Many of us can be critiqued by these passages.  Those who are good at following the traditions and the commandments, which are significant, may fall short in offering mercy, which is basic.   Pope Francis attempted to re-balance the Roman Catholic Church by calling for a year of mercy.  Those who focus on personal salvation and going to heaven, in the joy of that perceived good news, may fail to pay attention to how God calls us to live together as community—in the present, on earth.

Those who focus on faith as a way of life may care deeply about action and right behavior, giving too much attention to the self and forgetting the immanent and transcendent Other, thereby losing a sense of having good news.  Those who are spiritual and not religious may live with virtue but miss the power of story, the transformation that can come from it, and a relationship with the One who guides.

The challenge of these two passages raises in me the dilemma between contemplation and action.  Either extreme can get away from justice and mercy.  In a conflict situation my instinct is to want to try to reach across the divide and develop empathy and compassion for the other, learning from one another and appreciating the positions and concerns of each other.  But is that simply conflict avoidance?

Having chosen action, I sometimes have found myself and others with no grounding in the holy, functioning from judgment, self-righteousness, and superiority rather than from love—even being simply angry, mean, hateful, and insulting.

How helpful to have been given these two passages with the challenge of self-reflection and a search for faith that maintains justice and brings my heart to God!

Queries:

How do these two passages challenge you?

Is your faith self-focused or God-focused?

Prayer:

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.  O my God, in you I trust. . . .Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” (Psalm 25: 1-2a, 4).

For further reflection:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (See Isaiah 58: 1-9).

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines’” (See Mark 7: 6b-7).

To Weed or Not to Weed

As I write this I could instead be profitably weeding my front yard—which has no grass, lots of English ivy, pretty trees, flowers in their season, and an infinite amount of weeds.

In chapter 13 of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells two parables about weeds.  In the first, there is a sower whose seed lands on different kinds of soil.  One kind has thorns, which choke the new plants when they begin to grow, so they never produce.  The other parable tells about a wheat field sowed with good seeds but when everyone is asleep the enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat.  The surprising injunction is to let both of them grow together until harvest time.

Sometimes weeding is helpful and sometimes it is not.  To ignore injustice is to let conditions fester that choke out the life or Life in the individuals or groups to whom injustice is done, and also in those in whose name the wrongs are done.  People’s lives may be cut short because of the unjust conditions they face—hunger and malnutrition, exposure to high levels of pollution in order to produce the products wanted by those whose clean air is protected, being subject to gang violence because they can’t see better alternatives, enduring sex trafficking for others’ greed and lust.  With such conditions where is the compassion to which Jesus witnessed?  How can one be loving one’s neighbor as oneself?

We all have faults, but to become solely focused on removing the weeds, in ourselves or others, can result in perfectionism and losing sight of God.  We may forget who indeed is God, and also forget God’s love for us just as we are.  We judge, we ruminate on negative things, we lose sight of life and the abundance of gifts that we have been given.  A lack of humility and too much self-righteousness might prosper, because we don’t always know what are truly the weeds.  Nor do we always know how to pull them up without damage to the wheat.  To weed or not to weed is a question that needs prayerful discernment.

Queries:

What are the weeds in your life?

How do you listen to and care about others who have different values from yours?

Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

For further reflection:

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

An Interventionist God?

A loved one is seriously ill, an undocumented mother of children who have been born in the USA is threatened with deportation, color-blind racism means you have to fear for the life of your son in ways that white mothers don’t have to. In the midst of these and similar situations, can we cry out to God, or is that pointless?

A refrain among some who wrestle with religious or spiritual questions is “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” At best, they say, we can pray for some general wellbeing, or perhaps we can pray for a specific situation so that we will be changed. It seems that to think God intervenes is to say that God healed this person but refused to cure that one, cared about this situation but didn’t care about that one. Who would want to worship such an arbitrary God! But if it is not God’s doing that one person is healed and another is not, that some migrants die in the desert or on sea and others don’t, then how does one explain such things?

I believe that God desires relationship, that our prayers are heard and answered even though we may never understand how or why. I know I am not able to manipulate God, that if the situation about which I have prayed resolves in a way that makes me happy, it is not my doing. I can be grateful and give praise, but I cannot extrapolate from that situation as to what might happen in another situation, mine or someone else’s. What I can do is stay in relationship with God. I can, even must, cry out.

In the Bible story of Job, when he is afflicted with terrible losses and ills, his friends assume he has done wrong and God is punishing him. But Job insists he has done no wrong and demands an audience with God to protest. When God comes, Job is humbled by God’s awesomeness beyond all Job’s understanding. We would like to figure out who God is and how God works, but we can only stand in the mystery.

Queries:

How do you deal with the fact that some children make it through all the terrible challenges to reach the United States and others die? That some things you pray for seem to get no response?

Human action in response to God’s call and leading is important. How do you listen for what is yours to do? When and how are you to be God’s hands and feet?

Prayer:

Take a situation that you care about. Hold it in your mind and heart and know it deeply. In your imagination, lift that situation to the heart of Jesus.

For further reflection:

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (See Luke 18: 1-8).

“The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” (See Hannah’s prayer when she who had been barren gave birth to a child, I Samuel 2: 1-10.)