Do what I say, not what I do
For us, to mention the word “pharisee” is to make a reference to a hypocrite. Our world seems fascinated with taking down hypocrites. The secular media is willing to cover over a plethora of sins but often presents hypocrisy to be an unforgivable sin.
Jesus wrangles with the Pharisees because of their inordinate attachment to tradition. Is tradition itself the enemy? Fr. Pagola reflects that “it would be a serious mistake today for the church to remain a prisoner of the human traditions of our ancestors when everything calls us to a profound conversion to Jesus Christ, our Lord, and teacher. What should concern us is not to preserve the past intact but to make possible the birth of a church and of Christian communities able to reproduce the gospel faithfully and to make the kingdom of God a reality in contemporary society. Our main responsibility is not to repeat the past, but to make possible in our times the acceptance of Jesus Christ without hiding or obscuring him with human traditions, however sacred they may seem.” (Pagola, 2011, p. 118)
Tradition turns into the enemy when it becomes stale and makes us lose contact with the original reality. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur gives us a clue in his description of tradition in his book Time and Narrative. Tradition is “the living transmission of an innovation always capable of being reactivated by a return to the most creative moments of poetic activity” (Ricoeur, 1984, p. 39) This is tradition in its true sense. Today’s Gospel invites us to have a right connection with the past, a right understanding of tradition, and a right focus on mission.
Right connection to the past. Our understanding of the past should be historical. “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santanaya) We should also look at the past in its own context. It is an increasingly common error to judge the past with the categories of the present. But each historical age is best understood in its own context. This does not mean that everything is right or salvageable, but it is a show of goodness and understanding to give it the benefit of the doubt. We have received a “living transmission from the past.” The words in the Gospel and indeed in the whole New Testament are living words that have come down through the centuries. We are called to be Christians in the same right as the apostles and first Christians who heard the words from the mouth of the Savior and placed their lives on the line to proclaim his message to the world. We are called to remember our past so that we can give it meaning in every age. Tradition is not meant to obscure the message. Rather, we should make sure that the message breaks through any barrier to arrive to the time when we have been chosen to inhabit the earth.
Right understanding of tradition. “The community, born from the proclamation of the Gospel, recognizes that it was called by the words of those who were the first to experience the Lord and were sent out by him.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2006) The reason why we respect the traditions that come down to us is that we have received our faith from them. We are not our own parents. We have received the faith from those who have come before us. It is for this reason that we respect tradition. We should have a certain veneration for those who have come before us. Each generation adds something to the body of knowledge of the world. We can only build on what has been laid down in the past. This requires of us a certain respect.
Right focus on mission.
The Church has a great mission. “The Church, driven by the inner necessity of her own catholicity, and obeying the mandate of her Founder (cf. Mark 16:16), strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men” (Ad Gentes, 1) It is a right focus on mission that allows us to see both the living tradition of the Church and the original message in the right light. We live with fear and trembling, that the great message entrusted to us could become lost. We live as Christians, as heralds of the morning. We give meaning to our lives through our living out of the Gospel message.
We are all called to be missionaries. How can you be a missionary in your current situation? Look at your family, work, school, group of friends, whatever. But find the chance to be a missionary. The reason that our forefathers in the faith were called Christians was that they were always talking about Christ. We are not to get hung up on human traditions, but to preach the Gospel with freshness and love. Focusing on the mission gets us out of ourselves and often cures the ailments that may be afflicting our minds and souls. May our lives be living copies of the Gospel and may others be drawn to Jesus through the testimony of our life!
Benedict XVI. (2006). General Audience On the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2006/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20060503.html
Pagola, J.A. (2011). Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospels for Year B. (R. Luciani, Ed., V. de Souza, Trans.). Miami, FL: Convivium Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1984). Time and Narrative. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Second Vatican Council. (1965). Decree Ad Gentes, On the Mission Activity of the Church.