SUMMONED TO BE AS BIG AS GOD

Author: Fr. Mike Byron
September 02, 2018

What do you notice?  And what do you question?  Aren’t these two of the most revealing things that can be asked of ourselves, and others?  This past week I was traveling to the funeral of a friend and I stayed in a fairly high-end hotel, just because I felt like I was owed the freedom to splurge a little.  One morning in the breakfast room I sat next to a group of Hutterite people at the adjacent table.  They are folks who look like Amish people…the women all wear the same plain blue dress and white bonnet on their heads, and the men all wear britches and have what seem to me to be very strange gangly beards on their faces.  I thought it looked odd—these folks who deliberately make a public statement about their dedication to a simple, austere life, and who were bedding down for the night at $200 a pop.

I noticed, and I questioned.  Of course, the same kinds of inquiries could have been made of me, if anybody had known who I was.  So I made sure that nobody did.  No Roman collar on me that day—in part because I am aware that it looks funny to see the guy who’s supposed to be dedicated to a certain self-abnegation eating in the atrium of an expensive hotel.  I never took any vow of poverty, when I was ordained, but there’s still a reasonable expectation about living modestly that I try to honor.  I don’t think it would have been outrageous for somebody to notice and to question why the priest was having his hot breakfast at the Premier Hotel rather than at the Super 8 cereal trough.  

What do you notice?  And what do you question?  The answers say a lot about us.  And they say a lot about those who first followed Jesus around Israel.  And in fact it’s almost comical what they say…or pathetic.  Perhaps you’ve noticed—if you’ve been here in church this summer—that we spent the most recent five weeks on Sundays reading from chapter 6 of the gospel of John.  It is the so-called “Bread of Life Discourses” from Jesus, and they can seem to be almost endless: “I am the Bread of Life,” “Eating My Flesh and Drink My Blood,” “Unless You Eat and Drink You Cannot have Life,” and so on.  Over and over.  It’s all very heavily theological and Eucharistic teaching.  Jesus is telling people that he is basically God on earth.  Amazing stuff.

And so what do the Pharisees notice after all this?  What do they question?  “How come your disciples don’t ritually wash their hands before eating lunch?”  

Really?  That’s your take away from this extended lesson about how to gain eternal life?  You’re fixated on other peoples’ hand washing practices?

It’s so easy to make the focus of religious practice way too petty and small.  It was true 2000 years ago and it’s still true today.  Do we realize what and whom we are dealing with here?  What do we notice?  What do we question?  This past week I was noticing and questioning the clothing and breakfast patterns of the Hutterites and the next table, as if that were significant at all.

The life of faith has to do with the things that matter the very most to our existence, both now and for eternity and although we have our rituals and our sacramental practices of do’s and don’ts, these pale in comparison to the importance of the God whom we serve here, and God’s will for how we are to live.  Jesus himself had to clarify that point in the gospel today, when he explains to the ones whom he calls hypocrites that there are many more important things about being faithful than ritual behavior, things like the inner dispositions of the heart.  He presents them—and us—with a short list of examples:
Are your thoughts focused on evil things, or good?
Do you live chastely, or not?
Are you a thief, or a destroyer of other people, or not?
Are you faithful in your committed relationships?
Do you live primarily for your own self-indulgence?
Are you a teller of truth, or are you fundamentally a liar?
Are you sincere in your quest to know and love God?
Do you regard other people with respect, or with distain?
Are you dedicated to doing the honorable thing, or not?

There’s nothing on that list about how you wash your hands before a meal, or what kind of hat you ought to wear, or how to groom your facial hair or what hotel you stay at.  Maybe we get so caught up in all of those lesser concerns precisely because they are so much more peripheral, easier for us to control and elevate.  The concerns of true religion are all about the life-long project of becoming excellent human beings in the midst of community.  We make God too small when we substitute that grand ambition with more petty things—even if they are perfectly good and traditional petty things.  What do you notice?  What do you question?  

Let us pray and work today so as to notice what matters:  the condition of the poor and weak, the aged and the children, the planet, the despairing and the lonely…And so to question what we must:  greed, exploitation, abuse, clericalism, idolatry, dishonesty.  May we be dedicated always to the depth and breadth and wideness of this gospel summons.


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