AVOIDANCE VS. INVOLVEMENT

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time         

            Two monks, Brother Francis and an elder monk, were walking down a muddy road on a rainy day. They came on a lovely young girl dressed in fine silks, who was afraid to cross because of all the mud and the flood. “Come on, girl,” said Brother Francis. And he picked her up in his arms, and carried her across.

            The two monks walked in silence till they reached the monastery. Then the elder monk could not bear it any longer. “Monks should not go near young girls,” he said – “certainly not beautiful ones like that one! Why did you do it?” “Dear brother,” said Brother Francis, “I left that girl in the village. But you have carried her with you right into the monastery.”

            In these two monks we see the two often conflicting tendencies in Christian spirituality: namely, avoidance and involvement. The spirituality of avoidance emphasizes piety, the devout fulfilment of religious obligations, and shuns away from those regarded as sinners and bad people for fear of being contaminated by them. It aims at keeping the believer unstained by the world, not at changing the world or making a difference. The spirituality of involvement, on the other hand, emphasizes active solidarity with the poor who are often perceived as the bad people of the world. It does not shun but extends a helping hand to those in need believing that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

            Balance in Christian spirituality consists in reconciling these two tendencies and bringing them into harmony. As James, in today’s second reading, tells us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

            In today’s gospel reading, the scribes and Pharisees speak for the spirituality of avoidance. Their focus is on ritual observances. Their complaint about eating with unwashed hands has nothing to do with personal hygiene. They are interested in the ritual washing of hands which was an institution meant to avoid the presumed impurity of Gentiles from contaminating their ritual purity.

            By not observing the ritual washing of hands, the disciples of Jesus are blurring the distinction between Jews and Gentiles and behaving as if the two were one. Jesus defends this spirituality of inclusion with outsiders: “Hear me, all of you and understand.” “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

            In this one single sentence Jesus demolishes the entire structure of religious homophobia – the fear and avoidance of people who are different from us. Gentiles do not defile Jews any more than Jews defile Gentiles. Nothing and nobody outside a person can defile a person.

            If in the presence of someone or something you smell defilement, chances are that you brought the defilement with you in the first place. You need to look no further than within your own heart and soul. A clean-minded person sees nothing but cleanness everywhere, in everything, and in everyone.

            No wonder Jesus did not hesitate to touch a leper, to eat with public sinners (like tax collectors and prostitutes) and to let an ‘unclean’ woman to touch him. He got so involved with bad people that they nicknamed him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

            We are invited to take a second look at our spiritual orientation. Do we cultivate a spirituality of avoidance like the elder monk who would leave a small girl out in the cold for the sake of keeping some man-made rule or for fear of compromising his holiness? If so, today’s gospel passage challenges us to be more like Brother Francis who would reach out to all those in need, knowing that unless we carry the defilement in our hearts already, nothing and nobody outside of us can defile us. True purity is that of the heart. Rites of purification are useless if we forget their purpose, which is to invite us to rid our heart of its vices and attachments.

            For many of his hearers at that time, what Jesus said was bad news because it contradicted the tradition they honored. We call it good news (Gospel) because it is a word that liberates us from a world of endless regulations. It also challenges us and invites us to live a religion of the heart. It is a thing of the heart called LOVE – love of God and love of neighbor. To have a heart for Jesus, for his values and for his Gospel: this will always be our real business as Christians.

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