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).

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Mercy

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Year of Mercy. To grant mercy for people who make mistakes and are repentant or “worthy” of mercy is fine. But what about those people or groups who are doing terrible things, or who might include some who would oppress or do great harm—or even have values different from mine? Don’t we need to judge them, or wouldn’t we rather pass judgment? James 2: 13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” a statement that seems backwards.

J was arrested for selling cocaine. Mary knew too many young men whose lives had been ruined by cocaine. She could easily judge J. She was clear that what he had been doing was wrong. Yet, he was in fact a young man she had known from the time he was a baby. She had been his youth group leader at church. She knew his father abused his mother and had beaten her so badly that she had been blinded, and she knew that his mother had only recently died. She felt compelled to offer mercy.

She lined up his pastor and got letters of reference to take to his hearing, and together she and the pastor went to court and waited all the time it took for J’s case to come before the judge. Convinced by the support that had been presented, the judge, pointedly holding the young man accountable for what he did with this new chance, released him into their care.

Mercy is not the same as passivity or accepting anything and everything. It is a standing with, recognizing one’s own need for mercy, rather than feeling or acting superior and standing on top of. Mercy has costs. It isn’t about safety and security. Mercy recognized for what it is and received has the effect of yeast added to a measure of flour and liquid. Mercy transforms hearts. It comes from Love.

Queries:

What about your life would make you want to receive mercy rather than judgment?

What do you need to leave behind in order for your life to be more mercy-full?

Prayer:

Breathe in mercy. With the outward breath, let go.   An alternative prayer is the one routinely used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church–“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”

For further reference:

See James 2: 1-13, a passage that warns against showing partiality for one group over another and ends with the call for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).