Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Of True Believers and Pious Frauds (Tuesday Week II in Ordinary Time, Mk. 2:23-28)

As Jesus was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath,
his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.
At this the Pharisees said to him,
“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”
He said to them,
“Have you never read what David did
when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?
How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest
and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat,
and shared it with his companions?”
Then he said to them,
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.
That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”


There is true piety and false piety; there is genuine religiosity and phony religiosity; there’s faith that’s authentic and faith that’s a fraud. How do we tell the difference?

There’s no sophisticated, intellectual, or scholarly way of spotting the difference. Instead, it’s a very simple one. And Jesus in today’s gospel reading shows us the most basic rule: Does our piety, religiosity, and faith lead us to put the needs of people first? If so, then it is real; if not, then it probably isn’t.

This past week, as the whole human family—believer and non-believer alike—came together to lend a hand to our brothers and sisters affected by the tragedy in Haiti, a certain evangelical leader chose instead to speak words that might as well have come out of the mouth of the Pharisees in today’s gospel.

Haiti was hit by a calamity, he said, because God was punishing its people—this was from a man who night after night goes on TV asking people for money for his church’s missionary work. As I read about the guy, David Hume’s description of such persons kept ringing in my ears: “pious fraud”.

One of our professors in Louvain used to say: “Never think that Jesus in the gospels is criticizing only the hypocrisy and indifference of the religious leaders of his day; no, he criticizes the hypocrisy and indifference of religious leaders of any day—including our own.”

Augustine tells a story of his teacher, Saint Ambrose of Milan. When once, barbarians took many Christian prisoners to be sold into slavery, Ambrose wanted to save them, but had no money. He rushed into his cathedral and to the shock of his priests, had all the golden chalices, and vessels melted and turned into coins to pay for their ransom. When they confronted him for what he was doing, Ambrose simply said: “Would not Christ himself say, Why did you allow so many to die of hunger? Don’t you have gold in your church? You should have given them food. Why are so many captives brought to the slave market when you have all the gold you need to ransom them? We must preserve living vessels, not gold ones”.

There is true piety and false piety; there is genuine religiosity and phony religiosity; there’s faith that’s authentic and faith that’s a fraud. How do we tell the difference?

Does our piety make us kind, compassionate, caring, welcoming, generous, and loving? Does it make us a “man for others”? Does it bring us to closer communion with other persons? If so, then it’s real. If it doesn’t, then we have much work to do. After all, our calling is to become like Jesus, not like the Pharisees of his day, or our own.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)